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Three tips for journalists covering medical studies

Three tips for journalists covering medical studies

Lindsay Kalter | January 25, 2013

Updated Feb. 1, 2013

Giving the public an accurate and clear snapshot of the health care industry is no easy task.

Journalists who cover the medical field face several challenges, including scholarly jargon, complicated science and looming word limits. In the Association of Health Care Journalists' resource on covering medical studies, author Gary Schwitzer shares advice for better reporting. Here are three of his tips:

Know the hierarchy of evidence

Journalists should be aware of the "hierarchy of evidence pyramid," which ranks study types based on potential for certainty, Schwitzer says. At the top of the pyramid are systematic reviews--which examine research questions using a collection of previous studies--and meta-analyses, which establish the weight of evidence by pooling data from various studies. Right below these are randomized clinical trials, which randomly assign trial participants to a control group, minimizing factors that may skew results. Studies at the bottom of the pyramid include animal and test-tube research, given their lack of human subjects.

Watch your language

Though reporters are often constrained by word limits, brevity can often kill accuracy, Schwitzer writes. In the interest of preserving space and weeding out jargon, journalists sometimes inappropriately use language that implies a causal link, he says. For example, a study that found a "40 percent reduction of incident early age-related maculopathy was associated with fish consumption at least once a week" was reported by one media outlet as "eating fish may help preserve eyesight in older people." The words " 'preserve' and 'help' are both active and causal; 'may help' sounds like a caveat designed to convey uncertainty, but causality is still implied," the report says.

Be aware of publication bias

Journalists who cover the health and medicine beat often rely on journal articles for information. While peer-reviewed articles can be an important resource, Schwitzer says reporters should remember that because of editorial policies and industry interests, journals are more inclined to publish positive results than negative for things like clinical trials. "Selective reporting of clinical trial results may have adverse consequences for researchers, study participants, health care professionals, and patients," according to a study discussed by Schwitzer. Because of this, journalists should diversify their sources of information, and be sure to report a journal article's problems, limitations and back story.

To read the full report, click here (.pdf).

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