Press releases by academic medical centers: not so academic?

Ann Intern Med. 2009 May 5;150(9):613-8. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-150-9-200905050-00007.


Background: The news media are often criticized for exaggerated coverage of weak science. Press releases, a source of information for many journalists, might be a source of those exaggerations.

Objective: To characterize research press releases from academic medical centers.

Design: Content analysis.

Setting: Press releases from 10 medical centers at each extreme of U.S. News & World Report's rankings for medical research.

Measurements: Press release quality.

Results: Academic medical centers issued a mean of 49 press releases annually. Among 200 randomly selected releases analyzed in detail, 87 (44%) promoted animal or laboratory research, of which 64 (74%) explicitly claimed relevance to human health. Among 95 releases about primary human research, 22 (23%) omitted study size and 32 (34%) failed to quantify results. Among all 113 releases about human research, few (17%) promoted studies with the strongest designs (randomized trials or meta-analyses). Forty percent reported on the most limited human studies--those with uncontrolled interventions, small samples (<30 participants), surrogate primary outcomes, or unpublished data--yet 58% lacked the relevant cautions.

Limitation: The effects of press release quality on media coverage were not directly assessed.

Conclusion: Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.

Primary funding source: National Cancer Institute.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Academic Medical Centers*
  • Animals
  • Biomedical Research / standards*
  • Humans
  • Mass Media*
  • United States