A study conducted by Amélie Yavchitz and colleagues examines the factors associated with “spin” (specific reporting strategies, intentional or unintentional, that emphasize the beneficial effect of treatments) in press releases of clinical trials.
Previous studies indicate that in published reports, trial results can be distorted by the use of “spin” (specific reporting strategies, intentional or unintentional, emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment). We aimed to (1) evaluate the presence of “spin” in press releases and associated media coverage; and (2) evaluate whether findings of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) based on press releases and media coverage are misinterpreted.
Methods and Findings
We systematically searched for all press releases indexed in the EurekAlert! database between December 2009 and March 2010. Of the 498 press releases retrieved and screened, we included press releases for all two-arm, parallel-group RCTs (n = 70). We obtained a copy of the scientific article to which the press release related and we systematically searched for related news items using Lexis Nexis.
“Spin,” defined as specific reporting strategies (intentional or unintentional) emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment, was identified in 28 (40%) scientific article abstract conclusions and in 33 (47%) press releases. From bivariate and multivariable analysis assessing the journal type, funding source, sample size, type of treatment (drug or other), results of the primary outcomes (all nonstatistically significant versus other), author of the press release, and the presence of “spin” in the abstract conclusion, the only factor associated, with “spin” in the press release was “spin” in the article abstract conclusions (relative risk [RR] 5.6, [95% CI 2.8–11.1], p<0.001). Findings of RCTs based on press releases were overestimated for 19 (27%) reports. News items were identified for 41 RCTs; 21 (51%) were reported with “spin,” mainly the same type of “spin” as those identified in the press release and article abstract conclusion. Findings of RCTs based on the news item was overestimated for ten (24%) reports.
“Spin” was identified in about half of press releases and media coverage. In multivariable analysis, the main factor associated with “spin” in press releases was the presence of “spin” in the article abstract conclusion.
The mass media play an important role in disseminating the results of medical research. Every day, news items in newspapers and magazines and on the television, radio, and internet provide the general public with information about the latest clinical studies. Such news items are written by journalists and are often based on information in “press releases.” These short communications, which are posted on online databases such as EurekAlert! and sent directly to journalists, are prepared by researchers or more often by the drug companies, funding bodies, or institutions supporting the clinical research and are designed to attract favorable media attention to newly published research results. Press releases provide journalists with the information they need to develop and publish a news story, including a link to the peer-reviewed journal (a scholarly periodical containing articles that have been judged by independent experts) in which the research results appear.
Why Was This Study Done?
In an ideal world, journal articles, press releases, and news stories would all accurately reflect the results of health research. Unfortunately, the findings of randomized controlled trials (RCTs—studies that compare the outcomes of patients randomly assigned to receive alternative interventions), which are the best way to evaluate new treatments, are sometimes distorted in peer-reviewed journals by the use of “spin”—reporting that emphasizes the beneficial effects of the experimental (new) treatment. For example, a journal article may interpret nonstatistically significant differences as showing the equivalence of two treatments although such results actually indicate a lack of evidence for the superiority of either treatment. “Spin” can distort the transposition of research into clinical practice and, when reproduced in the mass media, it can give patients unrealistic expectations about new treatments. It is important, therefore, to know where “spin” occurs and to understand the effects of that “spin”. In this study, the researchers evaluate the presence of “spin” in press releases and associated media coverage and analyze whether the interpretation of RCT results based on press releases and associated news items could lead to the misinterpretation of RCT results.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 70 press releases indexed in EurekAlert! over a 4-month period that described two-arm, parallel-group RCTs. They used Lexis Nexis, a database of news reports from around the world, to identify associated news items for 41 of these press releases and then analyzed the press releases, news items, and abstracts of the scientific articles related to each press release for “spin”. Finally, they interpreted the results of the RCTs using each source of information independently. Nearly half the press releases and article abstract conclusions contained “spin” and, importantly, “spin” in the press releases was associated with “spin” in the article abstracts. The researchers overestimated the benefits of the experimental treatment from the press release as compared to the full-text peer-reviewed article for 27% of reports. Factors that were associated with this overestimation of treatment benefits included publication in a specialized journal and having “spin” in the press release. Of the news items related to press releases, half contained “spin”, usually of the same type as identified in the press release and article abstract. Finally, the researchers overestimated the benefit of the experimental treatment from the news item as compared to the full-text peer-reviewed article in 24% of cases.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that “spin” in press releases and news reports is related to the presence of “spin” in the abstract of peer-reviewed reports of RCTs and suggest that the interpretation of RCT results based solely on press releases or media coverage could distort the interpretation of research findings in a way that favors experimental treatments. This interpretation shift is probably related to the presence of “spin” in peer-reviewed article abstracts, press releases, and news items and may be partly responsible for a mismatch between the perceived and real beneficial effects of new treatments among the general public. Overall, these findings highlight the important role that journal reviewers and editors play in disseminating research findings. These individuals, the researchers conclude, have a responsibility to ensure that the conclusions reported in the abstracts of peer-reviewed articles are appropriate and do not over-interpret the results of clinical research.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001308.
The PLOS Hub for Clinical Trials, which collects PLOS journals relating to clinical trials, includes some other articles on “spin” in clinical trial reports
EurekAlert is an online free database for science press releases
The UK National Health Service Choices website includes Beyond the Headlines, a resource that provides an unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news for both the public and health professionals
The US-based organization HealthNewsReview, a project supported by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, also provides expert reviews of news stories