underemphasizing the long time between the trial and a marketable treatment, said Won Tesoriero.1
Panelists discussed that reporting on research and on clinical trials focuses on potential benefits for several reasons: the constant preoccupation with what is “new”; audience interest in stories that affect them, which requires reporters to extrapolate findings to a tangible end point (“what this means is that there may someday be a cure for”); researchers’ growing tendency to inflate the significance of their work; and for broadcasters, especially, the limited time (and space) for news stories, which does not allow for extensive context and caveats.
Roger Sergel, Managing Editor, Medical Unit, ABC News, suggested that one approach would be for journalists to analyze studies’ confidence intervals and not report on those with weak significance levels, or report only cautiously on studies that rely on associations, since audiences likely do not understand that an association does not prove cause and effect.
Particularly helpful, said Peggy Peck, Vice President and Executive Editor, MedPage Today, was including patient histories in the story package presented to the news media. These personal stories engage viewers, listeners, and readers and help provide context and, at times, a more complete picture. To maintain a balance between what is “new” and what is “important,” journalists have to carefully evaluate the real significance of the medical information that comes to them.
Researchers tend to want journalists to report on what they themselves are interested in—that is, the process of research, Sergel said—but journalists believe the public does not understand and is not very interested in the research process. Instead, reporters want to know how a set of trial results will affect their audience.
The panelists discussed that universities and research centers—as well as some individual researchers—have learned the value in aggressively promoting research results. Greater visibility enhances the prospects for obtaining additional grants, career advancement, and institutional prestige. As a result, Sergel said, news releases that an institution’s public relations department writes about a study typically suggest the results are very exciting and newsworthy. At the same time, investigators have learned to speak in hyperbole and use words like “landmark,” “practice-changing,” and “grand slam,” said Peck.
1 A recent FDA user’s guide for communicating risks and benefits includes a discussion of health care news coverage and strategies for improving the accurate representation of scientific findings by the media (FDA, 2011c, Chapter 18).