Background: Mass media through the Internet is a powerful means of disseminating medical research. We aimed to determine whether and how the interpretation of research results is misrepresented by the use of "spin" in the health section of Google News. Spin was defined as specific way of reporting, from whatever motive (intentional or unintentional), to emphasize that the beneficial effect of the intervention is greater than that shown by the results.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study of news highlighted in the health section of US, UK and Canada editions of Google News between July 2013 and January 2014. We searched for news items for 3 days a week (i.e., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) during 6 months and selected a sample of 130 news items reporting a scientific article evaluating the effect of an intervention on human health.
Results: In total, 78% of the news did not provide a full reference or electronic link to the scientific article. We found at least one spin in 114 (88%) news items and 18 different types of spin in news. These spin were mainly related to misleading reporting (59%) such as not reporting adverse events that were reported in the scientific article (25%), misleading interpretation (69%) such as claiming a causal effect despite non-randomized study design (49%) and overgeneralization/misleading extrapolation (41%) of the results such as extrapolating a beneficial effect from an animal study to humans (21%). We also identified some new types of spin such as highlighting a single patient experience for the success of a new treatment instead of focusing on the group results.
Conclusions: Interpretation of research results was frequently misrepresented in the health section of Google News. However, we do not know whether these spin were from the scientific articles themselves or added in the news.