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Covering Medical Research: 10 Questions Journalists Should Ask

Covering Medical Research: 10 Questions Journalists Should Ask

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

It's always good to get a statistics refresher if you cover any kind of health research. Erika Franklin Fowler, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, offered some tips on Saturday to California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows gathered for a seminar in Los Angeles. (Click here for her complete presentation.)

Here are some basic questions Fowler suggests journalists should ask before diving in to cover a medical study:

1. Has the study been peer reviewed? That ensures a check that these findings have been vetted by other professionals.

2. Does that study appear in a top journal in the field? In medicine, those journals include the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the British Medical Journal.

3. What type of study is it? Case control? Cross-sectional? Randomized controlled doubled blind study – the gold standard?

4. Who funded the study? You want to be wary of a "chocolate is good for your heart" study if it's funded by a candy manufacturer.

5. Is the study statistically significant? Know your p-values and confidence intervals.

6. What is the absolute vs. relative risk? Be wary of only including relative risks in your coverage.

7. What was the size of the study sample? Smaller studies are typically less powerful than larger ones.

8. What was the sample population, and how much like the general public is that sample? For example, phone surveys that don't include cell phone users tend to skew older.

9. How do the study results fit in the context of previous studies in this area? Do they contradict or confirm?

10. If a medical treatment is found to be effective, when will it be available to the public and how much will it cost? If it's not effective, will it be taken off the market or otherwise regulated?

Reporting Resources:

Here are some more resources on how to interpret medical research and evaluate its newsworthiness.

Erika Fowler Franklin: Getting a Grip on Statistics - What's Right and Wrong with Numbers on the News

Tricks of the Trade: Finding Nuggets in the River of Medical Studies

Health News Review: Criteria for Evaluating Media Coverage of Health

News and Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields


Picture of Linda Marsa

These are all excellent points.  Another thing to look for are the ties of the researchers.  They bristle at the suggestion that corporate funding will bias their results, but it often does.  They usually publish disclaimers at the end of published studies that must list their corporate ties.  But often, researchers may take honorariums to do seminars for drugs companies--called educational grants--or receive money in other ways.  Some doctors make a fortune running a side business testing drugs for pharmaceutical companies.  Things to think about.

Picture of Barbara Feder Ostrov

Thanks, Linda, for reinforcing that message. Erika Franklin Fowler does stress asking about the funding of the study (see #4) but it's also good to look at other sources of compensation for researchers that may or may not be related to the study in question. One question I have is how far do you go in backgrounding a researcher's potential conflicts of interest when reporting on a single medical study?

Picture of

Wonderfully helpful. Thank you very much, Barbara!

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