Study: Good press releases contribute to good health journalism

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Thanks to Gary Schwitzer for drawing attention to a study, published in BMJ, which analyzes the impact medical journal press releases have on actual press coverage of studies.

The authors begin with a somewhat gratifying hypothesis, writing that “Although it is easy to blame journalists for poor quality reporting, problems with coverage could begin with the journalists’ sources,” and positing that difficult-to-decipher studies and misleading press releases could lead to low-caliber health reporting.

They looked at 100 studies from five major journals, as well as a sample of 348 news stories based on those studies. In general they found that higher-quality press releases led to higher-quality coverage. Unfortunately, they also found that the inverse was true. Here’s an excerpt from the “Discussion” subheading (also highlighted by Schwitzer).

…Higher quality press releases issued by medical journals were associated with higher quality reporting in subsequent newspaper stories. In fact, the influence of press releases on subsequent newspaper stories was generally stronger than that of journal abstracts. Fundamental information such as absolute risks, harms, and limitations was more likely to be reported in newspaper stories when this information appeared in a medical journal press release than when it was missing from the press release or if no press release was issued. Furthermore, our data suggest that poor quality press releases were worse than no press release being issued: fundamental information was less likely to be reported in newspaper stories when it was missing from the press release than where no press release was issued at all.

Reporters looking for a Health News Review-style “how do I ensure my story clears their quality bar?” checklist can just scroll down to the “Quality Assessment” subheading. For the record, the metrics found there apply equally well to the PR professionals who write the releases.

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