This study systematically compares newspaper coverage of clinical trials for herbal remedies, a popular type of complementary and alternative medicine, with clinical trials for pharmaceuticals using a comparative content analysis. This is a timely inquiry given the recognized importance of the popular press as a source of health information, the complex and significant role of complementary and alternative medicine in individual health-care decisions, and the trend toward evidence-based research for some complementary and alternative medical therapies. We searched PubMed for clinical trials, Lexis/Nexis for newspaper articles in the UK, US, Australia/New Zealand, and Factiva for Canadian newspaper articles from 1995 to 2005. We used a coding frame to analyze and compare 48 pharmaceutical and 57 herbal remedy clinical trials as well as 201 pharmaceutical and 352 herbal remedy newspaper articles.
Herbal remedy clinical trials had similar Jadad scores to pharmaceutical trials but were significantly smaller and of shorter duration. The trials were mostly studies from Western countries and published in high-ranking journals. The majority of pharmaceutical (64%) and herbal remedy (53%) clinical trials had private sector funding involvement. A minority declared further author conflicts of interest. Newspaper coverage of herbal remedy clinical trials was more negative than for pharmaceutical trials; a result only partly explained by the greater proportion of herbal remedy clinical trials reporting negative results (P = 0.0201; χ2 = 7.8129; degrees of freedom = 2). Errors of omission were common in newspaper coverage, with little reporting of dose, sample size, location, and duration of the trial, methods, trial funding, and conflicts of interest. There was an under-reporting of risks, especially for herbal remedies.
Our finding of negative coverage of herbal remedy trials is contrary to the positive trends in most published research based primarily on anecdotal accounts. Our results highlight how media coverage is not providing the public with the information necessary to make informed decisions about medical treatments. Most concerning is the lack of disclosure of trial funding and conflicts of interest that could influence the outcome or reporting of trial results. This lack of reporting may impact the medical research community, which has the most to lose by way of public trust and respect.