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“Spin” in media coverage of research can be traced to abstracts

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6106 (Published 11 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6106
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. 1Washington, DC

Positive “spin” in media coverage of health research is often grounded in press releases written by the sponsoring organizations and also in statements in journal abstracts that unduly emphasize the positive and minimize the negative aspects of the study.

Some 40% of abstracts and half of press releases contained spin, the study in PLoS Medicine found, and about half the time these slanted how the research was covered in the media.1

The conclusions were drawn from an analysis of all 70 two arm, randomized controlled trials promoted through the popular EurekAlert! distribution service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science between December 2009 and March 2010. The researchers also conducted a LEXIS-NEXIS search for stories in the news media that were generated by those releases.

In looking at the press releases, the authors found that “the benefit of the experimental treatment was overestimated more often for trial results published in a specialized journal rather than in a general medical journal (45% vs. 6%; P<0.001), for trials with a small rather than large sample size (45% vs. 9%; P<0.001), for trials with non-statistically significant rather than significant primary outcomes (42% vs. 20%; P=0.05), and for trials with ‘spin’ rather than without ‘spin’ in the press release (48% vs. 8%; P<0.001).”

Interestingly, the type of experimental treatment, source of funding for the study, and source of the press release (half were written by the journal in which they were published and not by the institutional or commercial sponsor) were not significant factors in whether spin occurred.

Carrying their analysis to the next step, the authors found that factors associated with spin in news coverage were appearance in specialty journals (67% versus 35%; P=0.04), small sample size (68% versus 32%; P=0.02), spin in the abstract (100% versus 5%; P<0.001), and spin in the press release (100% versus 13%; P<0.001).

Previous studies have shown how news releases can influence media coverage of research findings; this study links spin back further, showing that it “is related to the presence of ‘spin’ in the published article, namely the abstract conclusions,” the authors wrote.

Adriane Fugh-Berman, who directs the PharmedOut program at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, which promotes transparency and education in medical research and education, told the BMJ, “This is an important study because it clearly demonstrates that spin in abstracts is perpetuated in press releases and news articles.

“Perhaps we should think of spin as an infectious disease.”

Fugh-Berman said that the abstract is the most important part of a paper because often it is all that harried physicians and reporters read. Yet, for all its importance, the abstract is often exempt from the peer review process.

The fact that spin occurs regardless of who funds the study or who writes the news release indicates that study authors are not the only ones who wish to place a study in the best possible light. For Fugh-Berman the bottom line is, “Read the complete study,” and do so with a critical eye.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6106

Footnotes

  • bmj.com Research: Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage: retrospective cohort study (BMJ 2012;344:d8164).

References

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