Author Archives: Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

Are you covering a ‘fakethrough?’

Jonathan Latham, Ph.D.

Jonathan Latham, Ph.D.

Remember the burger grown from stem cells? It might be a great idea, except a single patty grown using today’s technology, at least, cost a whopping $332,000.

In a new AHCJ tip sheet, Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project, asks whether discoveries like that are breakthroughs or “fakethroughs” – scientific advances that will never progress to new treatments or beneficial products. He also talks about his brand of investigative science journalism and why reporting on new discoveries should probably be more muted.

He has two tips for reporters and advice about what research journalists should cover.

Researchers agree: A study is a terrible thing to waste

Spend any significant amount of time reporting on research and you’re bound to run across a real stinker of a study.

Too often, the studies that become clickbait on the web or turn up in women’s magazines – usually boiled down to a surprising health tip – are just, well, how do I put this? Crap.

There are a lot of those kinds of studies in the world. Studies that are too small to be meaningful, or they ask bad or useless questions, they’re poorly designed or they essentially answer a question that’s already been repeatedly answered.

These kinds of studies exist because the publish-or-perish culture of academia rewards volume over value. And let’s accept our part in this, too. There’s always a media outlet that’s willing to trumpet a surprising, if completely unsound, study.

In a microcosm, a bad study or two can raise an eyebrow or a chuckle. In a macrocosm, however, the situation is dire. Continue reading

Tips help remind reporters to understand limits of the studies we cover

One of the most important skills required of reporters who cover medical research is the ability to find and discuss the limits of the studies we cover.

To that end, a trio of professors at Cambridge University recently published a helpful comment in the journal Nature: “Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Claims.” (If you don’t subscribe, you can read the full article for free here.)

Some of my favorites (in no particular order):

  1. Study relevance limits generalizations – a great reminder that the conditions of any study will limit how its findings can be applied in the real world.
  2. Bias is rife – We talk about several types of bias in the topic section, like reporting bias and healthy user effect. The article reminds us that even the color of a tablet can shade how study participants feel. Continue reading

Breast cancer screening recommendations up for review

With mammograms in the news lately, it’s worth noting that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has posted its plan for reviewing and updating its recommendations for screening for breast cancer. The draft research plan lays out the “strategy the Task Force will use to collect and examine research and is the first step in updating the 2009 recommendation,” according to Ana Fullmer at USPTF. Recommendations are updated every five to seven years, so she says a new recommendation probably won’t be finished for a few years.

The panel is seeking answers about the specific benefits and harms of screening mammography for women over 40, they’re asking if benefits and risks vary by imaging technique – digital mammograms, ultrasound or MRIs; and importantly, they’re trying to find out how common ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is in the U.S. and what benefits and harms are involved in treating it.

Experts recently recommended renaming DCIS to exclude the word “carcinoma” so the finding wouldn’t be so frightening to patients. DCIS is an abnormal pattern of cell growth in the milk ducts of the breast. In many cases, it doesn’t progress to cancer. Yet a growing number of women have decided to remove both breasts rather than take their chances that it isn’t dangerous.

Interested parties who want to weigh in on the draft plan are encouraged to submit comments and questions to the Task Force by Dec. 11.

Stories about Robach’s breast cancer diagnosis ignore the evidence

Image by themozhi's pixel displays via flickr.

Image by themozhi’s pixel displays via flickr.

It’s a jaw-dropper of a story. A reluctant television reporter is persuaded by her producers to have a mammogram in front of the cameras. A few weeks later, she reveals the results on air: The test she initially didn’t want found cancer.

In an essay for ABC News, her employer, Amy Robach wrote:

The doctors told me bluntly: “That mammogram just saved your life.”

If you’re a woman, this is the kind of news that sends a cold stab of fear through you. Here’s a professional in the prime of her life with no family history and, by her own estimation, very little in the way of personal risk. And she’s young — just 40 years old.

The problem with Robach’s story is that it is too scary. It seems to be a play for ratings in November, a month when television stations rely on viewership numbers to set advertising rates. Continue reading

Tools help reporters follow tax dollars that fund medical research

Image by Pia Christensen

Image by Pia Christensen

Why did the chicken cross the road? We’ve never known, but we may soon find out thanks to a United Kingdom project that aims to study human-chicken interactions.

It’s no joke, and it’s caused quite a flap across the pond because it’s costing taxpayers there £1.95 million, or roughly $3.1 million. Not everybody thinks it’s a crazy idea. Nature recently ran an editorial defending the research. The journal editors write:

We know surprisingly little about the history of human–chicken relations, such as how chickens first came to Britain.

Reading about that project got me thinking … in this era of sequestration cuts, what research projects have wrangled scarce public dollars in this country, and how much are we paying for them?

You can search government grants for research in a few places. Grants awarded by the federal department of Health and Human Services can be searched using the TAGGS tool, for Tracking Accountability in Government Grants.

A quick advanced search on the keyword “chicken” turned up four studies of chickens, but no foul play. Two studies deal with chicken genes, one is using chickens as a model for human disease, and the last is researching how chickens become colonized with bacteria that gives humans food poisoning.

You can also search grants by state, institution, and the name of the investigator.

The NIH has a different grant searching tool called RePORTER (Research Online Grant Reporting Tools). Using the advanced search there, the term “chicken” turned up 132 results, mostly because it also pulled up studies of chickenpox.

In addition to the keyword search you can search by funding category, location, and the names of investigators.

Have you used these tools to enterprise stories? Tell us about it in the comments section below. Don’t forget to include a link to your story.