New research published in the journal Wellcome Open Research has found that inaccuracies in media reporting of scientific studies are more often introduced in press releases issued by academic institutions than by journalists themselves.
The research, which analysed pregnancy- and fertility-related risk messages published in the UK media over four months, also found that the headlines focused on fetal health outcomes more often than those of pregnant women themselves, and that pregnant women were positioned as “vectors of potential harm” to their offspring, with a particular focus on women’s everyday habits during pregnancy and their possible impact on their child’s health.
The researchers analysed media reports that were based on a new scientific study about pregnancy or fertility, and assessed their accuracy by comparing them to the underlying scientific paper and the accompanying press release issued by the academic institution. They found that the media’s reporting of the science was largely accurate, suggesting that the UK media is a relatively trustworthy source of health risk messages. However, there were some exceptions to this, where the risk message conveyed in the scientific paper had been altered by the time it hit the headlines. In particular, caveats, such as statements about the study’s limitations or the fact that a causal link had not been proven, tended to be omitted. Rather than being removed by journalists, these caveats were almost always absent in the academic press release, with media outlets often reinstating them, fulfilling a corrective role.
In some cases, key elements of the underlying study were either omitted or conveyed inaccurately in media reports, which led to a distorted impression of the study’s findings. On these occasions, the inaccuracies could mostly be traced back to the corresponding academic press release, including to direct quotations from the study’s authors – calling into question the prevailing narrative that newspapers are to blame for irresponsible or sensationalist reporting.
The study also analysed the content of the headlines, to describe the landscape in which pregnant women make decisions about their health. According to the analysis, the media reported 56 studies about pregnancy or fertility risk over four months, making up 171 headlines in total. This suggests that, on average, a novel scientific finding about pregnancy or fertility risk is presented to the public roughly every other day.
Of the 56 scientific studies reported over four months, 32 focused solely on the health outcomes of the fetus, while just six looked exclusively at those of the pregnant woman. A further 14 studies considered the health outcomes of both mother and baby, and four looked at male fertility outcomes. Risk factors were mostly related to women’s health and behaviours, especially their diet, medication and underlying health conditions. Other risk factors included maternal age, exercise, and stress during pregnancy.
The study forms part of the WRISK Project, a research and engagement programme led by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Cardiff University, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project’s aim is to “understand and improve the communication of risk relating to pregnancy”. The two-year programme has sought to illuminate the needs and lived experiences of pregnant women, with the aim of informing and realigning public health messages to match. This paper marks the first of several studies to be published by the WRISK Project in the coming months. Others will focus on the communication of public health messages to pregnant women and their families, the experiences of pregnant women using medications during pregnancy, and the experiences of women with higher BMIs.
Olivia Marshall, lead author of the study and Policy and Communications Associate at BPAS, said:
“We’ve seen first-hand in recent months, with fertility rumours fuelling COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, that health misinformation can and does impact people’s decisions about their health. What’s clear from this study is that risk messages about pregnancy and fertility are part of our everyday lives, hitting the headlines several times a week. The responsibility for their accuracy does not only lie with the journalist writing up a story, but with everyone along the way whose work contributes to the formation and communication of these health messages.”
Dr Alexandra Freeman, Executive Director at the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, said:
“There’s a long pipeline of communication from scientific research to the public and others who might use such research findings to make decisions, and we all want accuracy at every stage. It’s easy to blame journalists, as one of the last sections of the pipeline, and this work shows the great importance of other parts. It means that helping academics and press officers write good, accurate press releases is key!”
Professor Julia Sanders, Professor of Clinical Nursing & Midwifery at Cardiff University, said:
“Pregnant women expect to be given information on how best to care for themselves and their baby. This study found that lots of studies look for links between behaviour in pregnancy and child outcomes, but not all headlines tell the full story, and not all should change the information given to women. In the 1950s, women were advised to buy pregnancy corsets, wear sensible shoes, avoid sea swimming and sex for much of their pregnancy. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed us all to the science, and uncertainties, of risk interpretation like never before. With so much new information on pregnancy and risks finding its way into headlines, this study shows that researchers need to make sure women get to hear the uncertainties as well as the science of their numerous studies.”
Notes to Editors
The WRISK project is inclusive of everyone who has been pregnant in the last 5 years, regardless of their gender identification. The project team always refer to individuals according to their self-determined gender. As the great majority of participants identify as women, we have used the word women for convenience.
BPAS is a charity that sees almost 100,000 women a year for reproductive healthcare services including pregnancy counselling, abortion care, miscarriage management and contraception, at clinics across the UK. It supports and advocates for reproductive choice.
BPAS also runs the Centre for Reproductive Research and Communication, which seeks to develop and deliver a research agenda that furthers women’s access to evidence-based reproductive healthcare, driven by an understanding of women’s perspectives and needs. You can find out more here.
BPAS intends to launch a not-for-profit fertility service in 2021, to provide ethical, evidence-based, person-centred care that supports patients. We intend to only charge what it costs to provide a safe, high-quality, and accessible service to patients who may be unable to access NHS-funded care.