Peer-reviewed articles and public health: the mad cow affair in Italian newspapers

JAMA. 1998 Jul 15;280(3):292-4. doi: 10.1001/jama.280.3.292.


Context: It has been suggested that early announcements of research works to be published in peer-reviewed journals may diminish newsworthiness of scientific articles, but this issue has not been widely studied.

Objective: To analyze the impact on the news media, in terms of volume and prominence of coverage, of a scientific article published in peer-reviewed journals about issues with relevance to public health compared with the impact of preliminary release of information on the same issue.

Design: Analysis of press coverage of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in the 7 newspapers with the widest circulation in Italy, between March 20, 1996, when the British secretary of state for health announced the identification of 10 cases of a new-variant CJD, described April 6, 1996, in The Lancet, and May 10, 1996. Related newspaper articles were identified by hand search.

Main outcome measures: Numbers of newspaper articles published before and after publication of the Lancet article.

Results: We collected 535 articles, of which 62 (11.6%) appeared on the front page. The number of articles published daily peaked on March 26 with 48 items and 1 article on the front page of all the newspapers. A total of 386 (72%) of the 535 articles and 56 (88.7%) of the 62 published on the front page were published in the first 2 weeks of the study period, before the Lancet publication.

Conclusions: Our analysis suggests that, in the case of issues of public health importance, when peer-reviewed research is published after a health risk is disclosed to the public, its impact in the media is small. Coordination between news release by public health authorities and publication by peer-reviewed journals may improve the quality of public information.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Encephalopathy, Bovine Spongiform
  • England
  • Italy
  • Mass Media*
  • Newspapers as Topic*
  • Peer Review*
  • Public Health*
  • Publishing*