Who is Accountable for the Exaggerated Claims in the Media?

The misinformation on scientific studies that we see in the news may not be entirely attributable to the media.  A 2014 retrospective analysis by Sumner et al. found that most cases of exaggerated claims in the news are due to articles and press releases that have not been properly peer reviewed. The study considered three parameters: advice, causal claims, and inference to humans (in animal studies). Sumner et al. illuminated a study of 70 press releases and 41 news stories that found only 4 cases in which the news contained exaggerated claims or “spin” when the associated journal abstract did not. The current research article reports that, when compared to the corresponding peer-reviewed journal articles, 33-40% of biomedical and health-related press releases issued by Russell Group universities contained exaggerated statements.

It is uncommon for people to track down the press release or full article associated with the news, which often leads to the media taking blame for inaccurate information.  It is imperative that academic institutions are held accountable so they veer away from reporting inflated claims. This article reviewed three categories for exaggerated claims: 1) Advice to readers to change behavior, 2) causal statements drawn from correlational research, and 3) inference to humans from animal research. It determined that when the press release was misleading, it was likely that the news report was too (58% of cases regarding advice, 81% regarding causal claims, and 86% regarding inference to humans). Conversely, the news is much less likely to exaggerate reported findings when the press release does not (17%, 18%, and 10%, respectively). 

There is a strong correlation between exaggeration in press releases and exaggeration in the news. This study concludes, “If the majority of exaggeration occurs within academic establishments, then the academic community has the opportunity to make an important difference to the quality of biomedical and health related news.”

To read the full article, click here