Identification of press releasesFig 1: Identification of press releases based on published studies with possible relevance for human health (biomedical and psychological sciences.The BMJ, Cardiff UniversityIn the study, published in the BMJ, researchers from Cardiff University found that 40 percent of the press releases they looked at contained exaggerated advice. They added that 33 percent (26% to 40%) contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36 percent (28% to 46%) contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research.

Researchers examined 462 biomedical and health-related science press releases from 20 leading UK universities in 2011 alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and news stories to identify the source of  "of distortions, exaggerations, or changes to the main conclusions drawn from research that could potentially influence a reader’s health-related behaviour."

When press releases contained such exaggeration, the research team found that, on average, 58 percent, 81 percent, and 86 percent of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17 percent, 18 percent, and 10 percent, on average, in news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Odds ratios for each category of analysis were 6.5, 20, and 56. At the same time, there was little evidence that exaggeration in press releases increased the uptake of news.

The main objective of the research was to address the way the national and international media frames health-related information, which has complex and powerful impacts on the use of healthcare and other health-related behavior in many countries, the researchers said. They added that the media can also even influence doctors and scientists and while that impact can be good, misinformation or misleading messages can have negative effects, such as confusing the public and eroding trust in medicine and science. Sometimes that negative impact can be quite dramatic, such as in the case of vaccination scares, they said.

In light of their results, the researchers stated that, "improving the accuracy of academic press releases could represent a key opportunity for reducing misleading health-related news."

- With files from the BMJ