The editorial points, for example, to the misleading coverage of a New England Journal of Medicine study that documented the trial results of the new anti-cancer drug olaparib. One national news outlet claimed the drug "was the most important cancer breakthrough of the decade," but failed to note that the study was uncontrolled (so there is no way to know if the drug accounted for the findings), and very preliminary (it is not known if the findings will ever translate into longer life).
The authors also highlight coverage of a JNCI article on alcohol consumption and cancer risk among women, which may have caused unwarranted fear: "A drink a day raises women's risk of cancer," read one newspaper headline. Unfortunately, the coverage did not provide the magnitude of the risk. Comparing the highest level of drinking (less than or equal to 15 drinks a week) to the lowest (one to two drinks per week), the investigators observed a 0.6% absolute increase in the risk of breast cancer diagnosis: from 2% to 2.6% for more than 7 years.
Journalists are not the only ones to blame, though, according to the authors. Medical journals sometimes leave important elements out of studies. In many cases, absolute risks and study limitations are omitted from the abstracts and journal press releases.
"We hope that efforts—within medical journals and those directed toward journalists—will help foster healthy skepticism in the news," the authors write. "Namely, setting a higher bar for covering very preliminary or inherently weak research, routinely providing data to support claims, and always highlighting study limitations."
Steven Woloshin, Lisa M. Schwartz, Barnett S. Kramer, 'Promoting Healthy Skepticism in the News: Helping Journalists Get It Right', Journal of the National Cancer Institute online 2009, 101: 1596-1599; doi:10.1093/jnci/djp409