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Clinical Trial Coverage Criticized

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Newspaper reporting on clinical trials "is not providing the public with the information necessary to make informed decisions about medical treatments, either conventional or alternative," according to a critical study just published in the journal BMC Medicine.

A team of researchers led by Tania Bubela of the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Canada, concluded that coverage falls short on a number of levels. “Errors of omission were common in newspaper coverage, with little reporting of dose, sample size, location and duration of the trial, methods, trial funding and conflicts of interest,” they write. “There was an underreporting of risks, especially for herbal remedies.”

The study is the first to systematically compare newspaper coverage of clinical trials of herbal remedies with those for pharmaceuticals. It examined coverage of 48 pharmaceutical and 57 herbal remedy clinical trials between 1995 and 2005 in newspapers from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Their report suggests a confused attitude toward complementary or alternative medicines such as herbal remedies. Clinical trials of such treatments receive more skeptical reporting that those for pharmaceuticals – which is something of a surprise, given previous research suggesting anecdotal accounts of these remedies in the media tend to be positive.

In reporting on clinical trials of alternative treatments, “journalists are displaying a degree of skepticism rare for medical reporting,” they write. This may reflect “subtle biases” toward conventional medicine on the part of editors, reporters or their sources in the medical community.

“The media is also overly reliant on narratives from satisfied patients, researchers, clinicians and patient groups, without disclosing financial ties to industry and conflicts of interest,” the researchers add. “It is time for journalists and editors to experiment with improving content without necessarily sacrificing narrative themes such as human-interest stories.”