A team at Bristol University and the University of Berne, Switzerland examined two stages on the path to newspaper coverage - selection by medical journal editors of studies for press releases and selection of newsworthy articles by journalists. They identified all original research articles published in the Lancet and BMJ during 1999 and 2000, then assessed the characteristics of articles that were press released and subsequently reported in the Friday and Saturday issues of the Times and Sun newspapers.
Of 1193 original research articles, 517 (43%) were highlighted in a press release and 81 (7%) were reported in one or both newspapers. All articles covered in newspapers had been press released. The pattern of reporting was similar in the Times and Sun.
Selection processes acted at both stages, but not always in the same direction. For example, newspapers underreported findings from randomised trials, even though they provide the strongest evidence and were more likely to be included in press releases. Instead, they tended to emphasise results from observational studies, which are more prone to bias, say the authors.
Good news and bad news were equally likely to be released to the press, but bad news was more likley to appear in the newspapers. Studies of women's health, reproduction, and cancer were more likely to be press released and covered in newspapers, and research from developing countries was ignored.
Although press releases might have been compiled, to some extent, in anticipation of popular tastes, the selective process introduced by newspaper journalists is stronger than that operating in the issuing of press releases, say the authors.
"We are concerned that many aspects of medical research are not well represented in newspapers." Given that newspapers are an important source of information about the results of medical research, these findings have important implications for policy makers, consumers of health services, and the population in general.