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From the Centro di Riferimento AIDS e Servizio di Epidemiologia delle Malattie Infettive, Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico "L. Spallanzani," Rome, Italy.
Context.— It has been suggested that early announcements of research works to
be published in peer-reviewed journals may diminish newsworthiness of scientific
articles, but this issue has not been widely studied.
Objective.— To analyze the impact on the news media, in terms of volume and prominence
of coverage, of a scientific article published in peer-reviewed journals about
issues with relevance to public health compared with the impact of preliminary
release of information on the same issue.
Design.— Analysis of press coverage of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and bovine
spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in the 7 newspapers with the widest
circulation in Italy, between March 20, 1996, when the British secretary of
state for health announced the identification of 10 cases of a new-variant
CJD, described April 6, 1996, in The Lancet, and
May 10, 1996. Related newspaper articles were identified by hand search.
Main Outcome Measures.— Numbers of newspaper articles published before and after publication
of the Lancet article.
Results.— We collected 535 articles, of which 62 (11.6%) appeared on the front
page. The number of articles published daily peaked on March 26 with 48 items
and 1 article on the front page of all the newspapers. A total of 386 (72%)
of the 535 articles and 56 (88.7%) of the 62 published on the front page were
published in the first 2 weeks of the study period, before the Lancet publication.
Conclusions.— Our analysis suggests that, in the case of issues of public health importance,
when peer-reviewed research is published after a health risk is disclosed
to the public, its impact in the media is small. Coordination between news
release by public health authorities and publication by peer-reviewed journals
may improve the quality of public information.
Conclusions.— JAMA. 1998;280:292-294
JOURNALISTS consider peer-reviewed journals an important source of information
on biomedical subjects1 and there is evidence
that articles published in peer-reviewed journals may have a significant impact
on the lay press.2 It has been suggested, however,
that early announcements of research work to be published in peer-reviewed
journals may greatly diminish newsworthiness of scientific articles.3
The aim of the present study was to analyze the impact on the news media,
in terms of volume and prominence of coverage, of a scientific article published
in peer-reviewed journals about issues with great relevance to public health
compared with impact of preliminary release of information on the same issue.
To this end we analyzed how the "mad cow affair" was reported in Italian newspapers
in the spring of 1996.
Mad cow disease is the popular name for bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE), identified in 1986 among British herds.4
In 1989 concern was expressed on the possible risk of BSE transmission to
humans, resulting in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).5
On March 20, 1996, the British secretary of state for health made a statement
in the House of Commons announcing the identification of a new-variant CJD
(v-CJD) in 10 young people, and stating that the most likely cause of these
cases was exposure to BSE, without mention of clinical and neuropathological
findings that led to the identification of v-CJD. Immediately all over Europe
concerns were raised on eating British beef. The scientific article describing
these cases in detail was published in The Lancet
on April 6, 1996.6
We performed an analysis of press reports on CJD and BSE for the period
March 20 to May 10, 1996, reviewing the 7 Italian newspapers with the highest
nationwide circulations.7 Relevant articles
were identified by hand search, reading each headline, subheading, and half
title, and were classified according to date of publication, page number,
and proportion of page occupied. To identify articles that contained more
specific scientific information, we collected information on whether newspaper
articles mentioned the following characteristics of v-CJD reported in The Lancet: number of cases, age, mean duration of disease,
short incubation period, mention of a new variant, and neuropathology findings.
If the article contained an interview with biomedical scientists, this was
recorded. For articles published after April 6, we also analyzed whether the Lancet article was mentioned.
For the 2 newspapers with the highest circulations, the 6-month period
preceding March 20, 1996, was also analyzed.
Overall, 535 articles on the mad cow affair were published during the
study period in the newspapers considered; 62 (11.6%) of them appeared on
the front page. A total of 5 articles on this subject appeared in the 2 newspapers
with the highest circulations during the 6 months preceding the study period.
On March 21, 1996, the day following the first statement on v-CJD, 2
newspapers each had 1 article on the mad cow affair. In the days that followed,
the overall number of articles, and the number of those appearing on the front
page, rapidly increased. The peak of press coverage was recorded on March
26, 1996, with a total of 48 items; at least 5 items, including 1 on the front
page, appeared in each of the newspapers studied. The newspaper attention
to the subject decreased after March 31, 1996, and no further peak of press
coverage was recorded after the Lancet publication
(Figure 1). During the study period,
72% of all the articles and 89% of those appearing on the front page were
published before the Lancet publication.
The median proportion of page occupied daily by the articles on the
mad cow affair was 0.63 in the first week and 0.43 in the second week of our
study. It dropped to 0.10 in the third week, and remained below this figure
in the following 5 weeks.
Overall, 50 articles reporting at least 1 of the 6 characteristics of
v-CJD were published in the 7 newspapers during the study period, and 46 (92%)
of them appeared before April 6, 1996. After the Lancet publication, only 1 article reported 2 findings not reported before.
Publication of the article on v-CJD in The Lancet
was mentioned at least once by 3 of the 7 newspapers. Finally, 27 articles
containing an interview with a scientist were identified; 21 (74%) of them
were published before the Lancet article.
Our results show that the mad cow affair had a great impact on the press
in Italy, and this finding is not surprising if its potential public health
and economic importance is considered.8
However, this impact was concentrated during the 2 weeks that followed
the first announcement on the emergence of v-CJD. The attention of the Italian
press had already decreased by the time the Lancet
article was published and no further peak of press coverage followed its publication.
Moreover, 4 of the 7 Italian newspapers studied did not mention the Lancet article.
Journalists apply 2 tests to any piece of information in the field of
science and medicine: is it genuine, and is it news?1
The information presented in the peer-reviewed article should be expected
to have a higher scientific credibility for journalists than the official
announcement that started the affair. However, the time period between the
first news release and the scientific article publication (slightly more than
2 weeks) could have been a long enough time span to determine that the information
on CJD had already partially lost its newsworthiness by the time the Lancet article was published.
These data suggest that when a peer-reviewed scientific article on a
health risk is published after this risk is disclosed to the public by other
means, its impact on the media is low. However, some limitations of this study
must be considered. First, we did not analyze coverage patterns of other news
media such as television, although there is evidence in Italy that in other
cases of emerging health risk, television coverage follows the same pattern
as newspapers (Carlo Fido, oral communication, 1998). Second, the case we
analyzed was characterized by the potential of significant and immediate implications
for public health; therefore, our results cannot be generalized to the routine
publication of peer-reviewed research.
The lack of synchronicity between announcement to the media and full
publication of scientific data may negatively affect the quality of information
conveyed to the public.
In the case we analyzed, scientists were asked by the press to give
an expert opinion, most often during the period of maximum mass media attention,
when most of the scientific information on v-CJD was conveyed by newspapers
to their readership. Moreover, physicians may have been asked by their patients
to give out more detailed information about a possible new health hazard,
as reported in similar situations.9 However,
the possibility for scientists and physicians to provide to the public a balanced
view of this emerging problem could have been impaired by the fact that most
of them did not have access to full scientific data eventually reported in
the peer-reviewed article.10
To improve the communication to the public and within the scientific
community in the case of emerging public health risks, 3 points should be
considered. First, research work with potential public health implication
should be promptly submitted to peer-reviewed journals, without delays because
of political or economic considerations. Such delay in submission apparently
occurred in the v-CJD article.11
Second, scientific journals should expedite the peer review and publication
process as much as possible in these cases, for example, by providing a fast
track for articles with relevant public health implications.12
Improved coordination between news release by public health authorities and
scientific publication by peer-reviewed journals should also be pursued.
Third, peer-reviewed journal editors should consider placing articles
with potential public health implications in Web sites. In an era in which
information on health matters is disseminated rapidly by the media, circulation
of information within the scientific community should be at least as fast,
while preserving the quality and reliability of scientific journals.
Girardi E, Petrosillo N, Aloisi MS, Ravà L, Ippolito G. Peer-Reviewed Articles and Public Health: The Mad Cow Affair in Italian Newspapers. JAMA. 1998;280(3):292–294. doi:10.1001/jama.280.3.292
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