One of the sources of academic disdain for popular health media is its reputation for sensationalism and exaggeration. "If You've Ever Eaten Pizza, You'll Want to Read About the Toxin That Is Pretty Certainly Ravaging Us From the Bowels Outward" or "This Common Household Item Is Definitely Killing You, Says a New Study"—when the actual study only posited that a "possible association may potentially exist" between, say, exposure to antibacterial soap and liver disease in a handful of mice who were exposed to more antibacterial soap than any human could ever dream of using, even if they washed their hands literally every time they went to the bathroom.
Petroc Sumner, a professor of psychology at Cardiff University in Wales, has been trying to pinpoint exactly where exaggeration in science reporting comes from. At what level, in the ladder from lab data to news headline, are most inaccuracies introduced?
Yesterday Sumner and colleagues published some important research in the journal BMJ that found that a majority of exaggeration in health stories was traced not to the news outlet, but to the press release—the statement issued by the university's publicity department.
"The framing of health-related information in the national and international media has complex and potentially powerful impacts on healthcare utilization and other health-related behavior," Sumner and colleagues write. "Although it is common to blame media outlets and their journalists for news perceived as exaggerated, sensationalized, or alarmist, most of the inflation detected in our study did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text of the press releases."