I received a text from a friend this week with a link to an article about a new drug for COVID-19 that led to “rapid recovery” of “critically ill” patients with COVID-19. “Houston Methodist Hospital is making national headlines after doctors used a new drug to help treat critically ill COVID-19 patients,” the breathless lead began. The last paragraph included this similarly dramatic quote from the drug manufacturer’s CEO in a press release: “No other antiviral agent has demonstrated rapid recovery from viral infection and demonstrated laboratory inhibition of viral replication.”
Along with the article link, my friend had texted, “Reads like a press release.” Yup, because that’s the only source used in this article and every other recent article I saw about the drug. (I only did a quick Google news search, but the only articles that came up all relied exclusively on the press release; most were the same Reuters wire story.) The drug, known as RLF-100 and aviptadil, is part of a clinical trial, but the trial is still recruiting participants — and the patients in the story aren’t even in the trial. So these aren’t even interim results from the trial. They’re just … anecdotes.
An abundance of news articles on COVID-19 therapies and clinical trials that rely solely or almost exclusively on press releases has been one of the biggest journalistic malpractices of pandemic reporting. And trust me — there are many to choose from.
Plenty of folks have already pointed out the media’s over-reliance on press releases for COVID-19 news over the past several months. Back in June, Gary Schwitzer posted back-to-back blogs on Stat’s promotion of an AstraZeneca press release on a COVID-19 vaccine and, the next day, multiple outlets’ reporting on preliminary trial results on dexamethasone for treating COVID-19. The independent science blogger Skeptical Raptor published an extensive analysis in late June of the problem of “coronavirus research peer review by press release.” As he writes, “this is not science,” and it’s not science journalism either.
Stat broke the story about the novel coronavirus back in January, cementing it as a trustworthy and credible outlet for news during the pandemic. But can readers trust a publication that includes sponsored content, including direct links to press releases on company websites, in its email newsletter (a practice dating back to at least 2016)?
Everything moves faster during a pandemic — misinformation, drug trials, experimental therapies, vaccine development, evolving understanding of the pathogen and the disease — but that doesn’t mean reporters should move equally fast to report every item vying for the public’s attention. In fact, during a pandemic it’s more important than ever for journalists to take their time in vetting information in press releases before deciding whether to report on it. The stakes for bad or incomplete information are much, much higher.
If journalists do decide to report on press releases (I’d argue that they shouldn’t most of the time), it’s irresponsible to do so without consulting outside experts and getting multiple clinical and/or research perspectives. Any reporting on drugs, vaccines, or trials should always include outside expert commentary, but that’s particularly essential when there isn’t even a study — or even a preprint — containing any more information than is in the press release.
I could have written this blog during any week since February, and I could easily have found a half dozen other stories as examples. What’s concerning is that I’m writing it six months into the pandemic, and the sludge of news-by-press-release hasn’t slowed down. In the midst of so much other misinformation readers are struggling to make sense of, the least journalists can do is not add to it.