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News stories about medical research influence patients’ beliefs, behaviours and use of healthcare services.1 Yet the quality of news coverage of medical studies is often poor.2 ,3 Many news stories about medical research exaggerate the clinical significance of the findings, fail to report potential harms of new interventions or overlook important study limitations.2
While it is tempting to blame journalists for shoddy medical news coverage, academic researchers, their institutions and journals must share the blame. For scientists, news coverage is an opportunity to frame their research in a favourable light for the public and colleagues. Meanwhile, development and fund-raising exigencies demand that institutions generate public enthusiasm about scientific accomplishments, and medical editors are motivated to maximise the impact of the research published in their journals. Thus, researchers, institutions and journal editors share a common motivation to maximise press coverage of new medical research.
Not surprisingly researchers and their institutions commonly collaborate on press releases to promote news coverage of new medical studies, and many journals issue press releases independently.4 Press releases increase the odds that a study will receive news coverage5 and influence the content of eventual press coverage.6 Alarmingly, in the guise of original reporting, many press releases issued by academic institutions appear verbatim on newspapers and websites with nothing to notify readers that the text is …