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Do the print media hype genetic research?

Do the print media hype genetic research?
03 May 2004   
Source: Medical News Today

This abstract from the Canadian Medical Association looks at whether the print media hype genetic research.


The public gets most of its information about genetic research from the media. It has been suggested that media representations may involve exaggeration, called "genohype." To examine the accuracy and nature of media coverage of genetic research, we reviewed the reporting of single-gene discoveries and associated technologies in major daily newspapers in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Australia.


We used neutral search terms to identify articles about gene discoveries and associated technologies hosted on the Dow Jones Interactive and Canadian NewsDisk databases from January 1995 to June 2001. We compared the contents, claims and conclusions of the scientific journal article with those of the associated newspaper article. Coders subjectively assigned the newspaper articles to 1 of 3 categories: moderately to highly exaggerated claims, slightly exaggerated claims or no exaggerated claims. We used classification tree software to identify the variables that contributed to the assignment of each newspaper article to 1 of the 3 categories: attention structure (positioning in the newspaper and length of the article), authorship, research topic, source of information other than the scientific paper, type and likelihood of risks and benefits, discussion of controversy, valuation tone (positive or negative), framing (e.g., description of research, celebration of progress, report of economic prospects or ethical perspective), technical accuracy (either omissions or errors that changed the description of the methods or interpretation of the results) and use of metaphors.


We examined 627 newspaper articles reporting on 111 papers published in 24 scientific and medical journals. Only 11% of the newspaper articles were categorized as having moderately to highly exaggerated claims; the majority were categorized as having no claims (63%) or slightly exaggerated claims (26%). The classification analysis ranked the reporting of risks as the most important variable in determining the categorization of newspaper articles. Only 15% of the newspaper articles and 5% of the scientific journal articles discussed costs or risks, whereas 97% of the newspaper articles and 98% of the scientific journal articles discussed the likelihood of benefits of the research.


Our data suggest that the majority of newspaper articles accurately convey the results of and reflect the claims made in scientific journal articles. Our study also highlights an overemphasis on benefits and under-representation of risks in both scientific and newspaper articles. The cause and nature of this trend is uncertain.

The public gets most of its information about genetics from television, radio, magazines and newspapers.1,2,3,4 It has been suggested that media representations of genetics are inaccurate or exaggerated and lead to a phenomenon that has been called "genohype," 5,6,7 the "hyped" portrayal of both the benefits and risks associated with genetic research and the application of genetic technologies.

It has also been suggested that this sensationalization of genetics may have an adverse impact on the public's ability to participate in policy discussions1,8 and on the utilization of genetic services because it creates inflated perceptions of the value of, for example, specific genetic tests.5,9

Several studies and commentaries have suggested various degrees and sources of reporting inaccuracies.

For example, institutional press releases may be incomplete (with risks and limits being underplayed),10 media stories about medications often include inadequate or incomplete information about risks and costs,11 and abstracts from scientific meetings often receive a significant amount of media attention even though the validity and importance of the research has not "been established in the scientific community." 12 Some have speculated about the general weaknesses of the popular media's coverage of medical breakthroughs13,14 and their preference for positive over negative results.15

Surprisingly few systematic studies have examined the accuracy of media reporting in the context of genetics, most focusing on coverage of a single issue, such as sexual orientation16,17 or the discovery of susceptibility to breast and prostate cancer.18,19 The available data are instructive but not definitive.14,16,17,18,19,20

We examined broadsheet newspaper coverage of genetic research in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Australia, countries with a scientific community heavily involved in genetic research. We attempted to measure media "hype" and the factors that contribute to inaccuracy and exaggeration. In addition, we attempted to gain insight into the possible source (researchers, scientific journals or the media) and nature of any "hype."

Written by Tania M. Bubela and Timothy A. Caulfield.

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