The power of the press release: A tale of two fish oil-chemotherapy studies
About two weeks ago,a press release came across my desk from the journal Cancer: “Fish Oil Fights Weight Loss Due to Chemotherapy.” The study was embargoed until February 28, when it was scheduled to be published online.
I did a bit of a double take when I looked at it. The subject matter looked familiar to me, and I seemed to remember having found a very similar study in the same journal not long before.
Sure enough, when I checked, there was a study by the same authors, published on February 15, that I had picked for Reuters Health to cover: Supplementation with fish oil increases first-line chemotherapy efficacy in patients with with advanced nonsmall cell lung cancer.
Given all of the similarities — after all, press releases often pick out findings that wouldn’t be suggested by the study’s title, although I didn’t remember weight loss being a particularly important endpoint of the study — I jumped to a conclusion: These were actually the same study, but Cancer had decided to embargo it for nearly two weeks after it initially appeared, to get some buzz. Aha! Another example of “freely available but embargoed,” an Embargo Watch pet peeve.
Well, I was wrong about that. They were two separate studies, as Cancer publisher Wiley pointed out when I checked.
The first study had been neither press-released nor embargoed, and we had, as it turned out, scheduled a story on it to run on February 28 — the day the other study was coming out. Neither study was particularly large: 46 patients in the February 15 one, 40 in the February 28 one. The February 15 one had the advantage of lasting an entire year, while the February 28 one was just 10 weeks, but in both cases I decided these were better for our professional wire, aimed at doctors, rather than our consumer wire.
I probably would have been irritated had we run the February 15 story already, or if it was scheduled long before the 28th. That would have meant not telling the whole story because something was embargoed until after the story ran — another pet peeve. But since we weren’t going to get to the February 15 study until the 28th anyway, I had our writer combine them into one story that ran when the 28th’s embargo lifted.
Our story began like this:
Fish oil appears beneficial in cancer patients
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Fish oil might protect cancer patients from chemo-related weight loss, and might even help make that chemo more effective, if two small pilot studies turn out to be reproducible.
I was curious, though, whether anyone else had noticed the February 15 study, which I found because I review dozens of journals a week and go far beyond press-released research. A number of outlets covered the study, and one got just two stars out of five from Health News Review.
But none of them, as far as I can tell among stories that are free to air, covered the February 15 study. To be fair, our story, because it’s on our professional wire, isn’t free to air either, so it’s quite possible that there are others behind paywalls that did cover it.
Still, I find it puzzling that all the outlets aimed at consumers chose to cover a shorter — and even somewhat smaller — study in a journal that had just published a longer — and therefore stronger — one. I can’t prove that it comes down to the fact that one was press-released and the other wasn’t, but I’m not seeing any evidence to the contrary.
I also can’t explain why Cancer chose to press-release the weaker of the two studies, although it was probably just choosing what was important in a given week, rather than anything planned. The February 28 study probably just stood out more that week than the February 15 one had. Of course, if it were me, I would have somehow mentioned the February 15 study in the release for the February 28th one, but I don’t write press releases.
What this does suggest is that press releases are more powerful than some of us would like to admit — and that many news outlets rely too heavily on them to determine what they should be covering. I often criticize journals and societies for their attempts to use embargoes to control the flow of information. Here, however, the balance of the blame seems to be with reporters.
Sorry, colleagues, but I call them like I see them.