Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Harvard hospital apologizes for promoting “weak” data on aspartame, cancer

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Earlier this week, Brigham & Women’s Hospital sent out a press released titled, “The truth isn’t sweet when it comes to artificial sweeteners.” It’s the kind of release that was likely to grab lots of reporters’ attention.

But today, the hospital did something familiar during political season: They walked back that press release, apologizing for having sent it out.

Apparently, this was skeptical journalism in action. As NBC News’ Robert Bazell writes:

After being asked some hard questions – and just before the report was to be released —  the hospital changed its tune, issuing a statement that said: “Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.”

Here’s the whole message from Erin McDonough, senior vice president of communication and public affairs:

It has come to our attention that the scientific leaders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital did not have an opportunity, prior to today, to review the findings of the paper entitled “Consumption of Artificial Sweetener and Sugar Containing Soda and the Risk of Lymphoma and Leukemia in Men and Women”, to be published in today’s Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Upon review of the findings, the consensus of our scientific leaders is that the data is weak, and that BWH Media Relations was premature in the promotion of this work. We apologize for the time you have invested in this story.

The email gets the journal wrong, which is probably why it’s incorrect in the NBC blog post, too. The study was actually published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (I’m pretty sure there is no Journal of Clinical Nutrition.) Bazell reports:

The conclusion was so weak that the researchers had to submit it to six journals before they found a seventh, the [American] Journal of Clinical Nutrition, that would publish it. Few reporters read that journal. If it was not for the frightening headline no one would have known about this study.

Read Bazell’s whole post, in which he makes important points about the caveats reporters should include in stories, here.

Update, 5:30 p.m. Eastern, 10/24/12:

McDonough tells Embargo Watch that this was the first time something like this had ever happened in her 25 years of working in media relations.

“It was gut-wrenching,” she said when calling in near-immediate response to an email.

Generally, McDonough said, press releases are reviewed by senior scientific staff before going out. That didn’t happen this time, and when the scientific leadership saw this one, they were concerned it was promoting weaker evidence than they would like.

That left McDonough with a difficult decision, but one she said was hers.

“I just felt it was the right thing for the media team to do,” she said. “I don’t regret it. It’s better than having people out there read our material, and make decisions based on it, if we can’t stand behind it. We’ll take whatever flack we get for it.”

Hat tip: Carl Zimmer

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Written by Ivan Oransky

October 24, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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