In what seems to be an eternity ago, I wrote about a pair of studies on concussions for Scientific American. The 2013 piece was interesting to write because it covered two studies whose combined findings revealed as much about the gaps in concussion research as they did clinically useful findings.
A few years after that, I wrote about a panel at the 2016 Health Journalism conference on sports concussions that highlighted some of the questions journalists need to consider when writing about this often contentious research. The stakes are high when it comes to coverage of concussion research, particularly as it relates to sports, both because of the financial implications for major league sports organizations and the conflicts of interest that often complicate policy statements from medical organizations.
For example, when I wrote about the then-new 2015 policy statement on “Tackling in Youth Football” from the American Academy of Pediatrics, I noted that one of the two lead authors, pediatrician Gregory L. Landry, M.D., “had his college tuition paid by playing football, served as team physician for the University of Wisconsin football team for many seasons, and grew up as the son of a high school football coach,” which strongly suggests ideological bias that could interfere with interpretation of the evidence. (Indeed, my interview with him at the time suggested as much to me.)
The other lead author, William P. Meehan III, M.D., had a different kind of potential conflict because he had been involved in research “partly funded by the National Football League Players Association,” which suggests potential bias toward the players bringing suits for injuries. These potential biases may cancel each other out, and it does make sense that a pediatrician with a history related to football would be more likely to serve on the AAP’s Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, which produced the policy statement. Regardless, it reveals the challenge in finding independent assessments of the evidence.
That includes evidence related to screening and diagnostic tests to determine if someone has a concussion and how bad it is. A tip sheet by Matt Shipman, a public information officer at North Carolina State University, published at HealthNewsReview.org offers helpful pointers on what reporters should look for and ask about when writing about concussion-related testing. In addition, check out this list of concussion-related resources compiled at AHCJ.