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News stories about medical research rarely include objective comments from experts who weren't involved in the work, according to a recent analysis.
Of nearly 600 news articles about medical research published in early 2013, only about one in six included a comment from a person not affiliated with the research - and a quarter of the independent sources quoted in the articles appeared to have no relevant expertise about the topic, the study found.
Also, the commenters frequently had conflicts of interest.
As reported in CMAJ December 19, the researchers identified 131 studies published in major medical journals that were covered by the news media in 591 stories.
Only 92 of those news stories - or about 16 percent - included comments from people unaffiliated with the research. About a fifth of those commenters were editorialists whose opinion pieces about the research were published along with it in the same issue of the medical journal.
Roughly half of the "outside" sources had academic expertise related to the topic, and 56 percent had expertise from treating patients. A quarter of the commenters had no academic or clinical expertise; many of these were spokespeople.
"We were surprised by the low proportion of news reports that included comments," study co-author Dr. Andrew Grey, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, told Reuters Health in an email.
Also, he said, "The average person should be aware that commenters in health new stories quite frequently have (conflicts of interest) that are relevant to the topic at hand, that are frequently not reported and quite likely to influence the disposition of the comments towards the research in question."
In the new analysis, 54 percent of independent commenters had a professional conflict of interest and about a third had a financial conflict of interest. Results were similar for the editorialists.
Grey and his colleagues undertook the study after one of them was asked by a science media organization to comment on a new piece of research. Another researcher responded first with comments critical of the study, and those were published. The story did not mention that new study contradicted the commenter's own findings.
"We think readers should be appraised of any (conflicts of interest) so they can consider their importance," said Grey.
Gary Schwitzer, publisher and founder of the medical news watchdog site HealthNewsReview.org, told Reuters Health his website has reviewed nearly 2,300 health news stories over its 10-year history.
HealthNewsReview.org has 10 criteria for a high-quality medical news story (bit.ly/RIHXwp). One of those elements is that stories contain an independent comment from a person without conflicts of interest.
About half of the stories evaluated by the site's reviewers meet that requirement in some way, said Schwitzer, who is also an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis.
There is "really good evidence (that) people can be harmed by single source stories relying on input from people who stand to gain from whatever message is being delivered," said Schwitzer, who wasn't involved in Grey's study.
Grey said it wasn't his team's intention to offer advice to journalists, but he said those covering medical research should identify and report relevant conflicts of interest.
A lot of power rests in the hands of people reading, watching and listening to health news, said Schwitzer.
"If we could get more people to look at how we independently and critically vet the evidence as it's presented in news stories, I think high schoolers and maybe even eighth graders can learn to cut through the smoke screen and become better critical thinkers," he said.