Research Article: The association between quality measures of medical university press releases and their corresponding news stories—Important information missing

Date Published: June 12, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Maike Winters, Anna Larsson, Jan Kowalski, Carl Johan Sundberg, Wolfgang Glanzel.


The news media is a key source for health and medical information, and relies to a large degree on material from press releases (PR). Medical universities are key players in the dissemination of PRs. This study aims to 1) explore the relation between the quality of press releases (PRs) from medical universities and their corresponding news stories (NSs) and 2) to identify the likelihood that specific scientific and interest-raising measures appear or are omitted in PRs and NSs.

In this retrospective study using quantitative content analysis, PRs (n = 507) from 21 medical universities in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the USA and the UK were retrieved. Of all PRs, 33% had media coverage, resulting in 496 NSs. With two codebooks, 18 scientific (e.g. reporting the study design of the study correctly) and 7 interest-raising measures (e.g. words like ‘ground-breaking’) were evaluated in the PRs and NSs. For all measures the percentage of presence in NSs and PRs was calculated, together with a Mean PR Influence Factor. Quality of PRs and NSs was defined as a score, based on 12 of the 18 scientific measures. Mean (SD) NS quality score was 6.5 (1.7) which was significantly lower than the PR score of 8.0 (1.5). The two quality scores were significantly correlated. Quality measures that were frequently omitted included reporting important study limitations (present in 21% of PRs, 21% of NSs), funding (59% of PRs, 7% of NSs) and conflicts of interest (16% of PRs, 3% of NSs). We did not evaluate the quality of the scientific papers (SPs), and can therefore not determine if the quality of PRs and NSs is associated with the quality of SPs.

This large study of medical university press releases and corresponding news stories showed that important measures of a scientific study such as funding and study limitations were omitted to a very large extent. The lay public and health personnel as well as policy makers, politicians and other decision makers may be misled by incomplete and partly inaccurate representations of scientific studies which could negatively affect important health-related behaviours and decisions.

Partial Text

The media are an important source of information about developments in science for the general public[1]. Of all scientific disciplines, Europeans reportedly find health and medical care most important[1]. News media have the power not only to influence people’s beliefs and attitudes around medical topics, but also to affect healthcare seeking behaviour[2–6]. For instance, a Danish study found that negative news coverage surrounding statin-use was associated with decreased use of statins, increased myocardial infarction and death from cardiovascular disease[5]. Furthermore, a 10-year analysis of trends of SSRI prescription drug use in the Netherlands and the UK found that changes in its use were associated with a combination of media attention and regulatory warnings[4]. Generally, it has been stated that the more a disease is discussed in the media, the more serious the disease is perceived to be by the lay public[7].

Press releases (PRs) were retrieved from the 1st of March 2015 until the 30th of June 2015, from the websites of four high-ranked universities with medical faculties (according to the Times World University ranking of 2014)[19] from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the USA and UK. Because the number of PRs from one of the selected universities in the Netherlands was so low (n = 1), one extra Dutch university was included. The press releases were included in the study if the topic was medical and directly related to a published scientific paper (SP) in a recognized scientific journal, yielding a total of 507 PRs (see flowchart in S1 Fig). Media coverage was captured by searching the media databases LexisNexis and Retriever, as well as by searching through Google News. Tag words or words from the PR headline were used with date limits from three days before the release date of the PR up till two weeks after. By using these databases, news stories (NSs) published in print and/or online could be included. For the US and the UK, only English-language media were selected. For Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, English-language media was searched as well as media in the main official language of the country (i.e. German, Dutch and Swedish respectively). NSs were included if the published SP was discussed. Opinion pieces and pieces written by the authors of the SP were excluded. One PR can have a varying number of related NSs. When news goes viral, it is not uncommon that media outlets use other media and press agencies as sources[16]. Because it was beyond the aim and scope of this study to analyse the viral flow of media, a maximum was set of 12 NSs per PRs. If there were more than 12 NSs for one PR, priority was given to the highest ranked articles in the used databases. Media outlets can reprint material from press agencies; different outlets could therefore print the same NSs. If this was the case, only the original press agency article was included.

A total of 507 Press releases (PRs) were retrieved (see S3 Table), of which 170 (34%) had media coverage, with at least one news story (NS) identified as related to the publication of the PR. These 170 PRs had a total of 496 NSs (S3 Table). The USA had the largest number of PRs (n = 67), as well as the largest number of corresponding NSs from the PRs (n = 203). There were only 6 PRs (12%) from the 4 German universities that had any media coverage. Sweden had the highest relative media coverage of the PRs: 43%. The mean number of NSs per PR was 2.89 (median 2).

This large, five-country study shows that the quality scores of medical university press releases (PRs) and their related news stories (NSs) were significantly correlated and that the quality of NSs was lower than the quality of the PRs. Also, as information about a scientific publication (SP) passes to PRs and subsequent NSs, more quality measures about a scientific study were omitted. In both PRs and NSs, the most commonly omitted quality measures were limitations of the scientific study, sources of funding of the study and conflicts of interest.

This large multi-national study shows that there was a correlation between the quality of medical university press releases and related news stories. Also, measures were more likely to be reported in NSs if reported in PRs and important measures such as potential conflicts of interest, funding and study limitations were omitted to a very large extent. Altogether, the content and quality of NSs seem to be influenced by how medical university PRs are written and framed. This may have serious repercussions since the lay public, health personnel as well as policy makers, politicians and other decision makers, may be misled by incomplete and partly inaccurate representations of scientific studies which could negatively affect important health-related behaviours and decisions.