Dr Amanda Wilson puts forward an interesting hypothesis below, in her regular update on the activities of Media Doctor Australia. Perhaps the annual lifecycle of medical research is reflected in the frequency of news stories about health?

It might be interesting to investigate this further, although there are of course many variables affecting what stories hit the headlines.

She also details which story has the unlucky distinction of being awarded the “howler of the month”. Interestingly, the critique is directed at the “outrageous statements” of the expert source rather than the editorial decision makers.

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Which howlers and other stories sent us grey this month?

Amanda Wilson writes:

A quick analysis of stories rated and posted on www.mediadoctor.org.au this year shows a rather nice curve in the average number of stories per month.  The average number of stories per month is 9 but this peaks to a high of 21 in July.  It could be seen as correlating with the annual activity of the average academic researcher.

The early months of the researcher’s year are dedicated to grant writing, usually due in March/April.  Any previous funding gained is channelled into getting research started so it’s a busy time with not much output.

The middle of the year is when people have time to write papers, publish and put their hard earned research money into practice.  It’s also the time when grant applications are being shuffled through and sorted into piles of possible, probably and not a chance in hell.  It’s a good season to be seen and have your research talked about and the media stories reflect this.

By August, it’s probably too late to have much impact on grant examiners so the research press releases drop off; instead researchers are busy writing grant rejoinders in a last desperate bid to stay viable.

September and October bring news which in many cases makes or breaks a researcher’s work.  It’s a cut-throat business and more than one rising research star will crash in a burning heap and face a bleak future when the funding rounds are announced.

Universities close down over Christmas so November is time for researchers to wind up studies for the year and brace themselves for the 2012 funding round.

For the health media this means a sparse diet of cheap and cheerful Christmas health stories.

Enough to turn our hair grey

Our analysis of October’s story list supports this life cycle of research promotion.  There was little in the way of new local research. Three of the stories were imported from overseas news outlets, including the truely awful “L’Oreal develops daily medication that won’t turn a hair grey”.

This was a story about a daily pill to prevent grey hair that hasn’t been manufactured yet and with no evidence that it works. This wasn’t made clear in the story. We gave it 1 star.

The other imported stories scored well and included:

One local story from The World Today scored a 5 star rating with an excellent interpretation of a study published in The Lancet on a nursing intervention for stroke patients. “Better nursing care a boon to stroke outcomes” (5 stars)

Not-so-good was a story about a well known company which owns nursing homes.  The story title says “backyards are better than medicine” but the study referred to in the story was about a drug trial and nothing to do with gardens.  It looked very much like two stories that had been shoved together resulting in a rather misleading commercial promotion. “Backyard better than medicine for dementia patients” (1.5 stars)

Howler of the month

The howler of the month goes to a story which covered most areas well and rated quite highly.  However, the good points of this story about a new blood test to detect pre-eclampsia were overshadowed by one of the worst analogies Media Doctor has seen in 7 years.

The Professor conducting the research was quoted saying “A jumbo jet full of babies die each year due to pre-eclampsia…”  Apart from the unnecessary emotional impact this description carries, it is completely meaningless.  How many babies is this? Were they in capusles or stacked on top of each other? Why not just provide the numbers?

If senior researchers provide such outrageous statements, journalists can hardly be blamed for using them.  But it’s hardly responsible health practice and seems a shoddy way to get media attention. “Blood test a life-saver for babies” (3.5 stars)

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Peter Fray
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