Can there be such a thing as too much press coverage of research presented at a medical conference? Apparently so. Press coverage of scientific meetings may be characterized as "too much, too soon," according to an article appearing in the June 5 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Results are frequently presented to the public as scientifically sound evidence rather than preliminary findings of still uncertain validity. This coverage is concerning since a substantial number of the studies remain unpublished, precluding evaluation in the scientific community, according to Dartmouth Medical School and Veterans Affairs Outcomes Group physicians Steven Woloshin, MD, and Lisa M. Schwartz, MD.

Woloshin and Schwartz searched databases to identify media coverage of five high profile scientific medical meetings in 1998. A total of 252 news stories reporting on 147 research presentations were found, an average of 50 news stories per meeting. Nine or more stories about research presentations appeared in each of the nation's five highest-circulation newspapers. Thirty-nine of the 147 (27 percent) research presentations received front-page coverage in at least one newspaper. Of the 147 research presentations receiving news media coverage, 24 percent were randomized trials, 21 percent were small (less than 30 human subjects) and 16 percent did not involve patients (animal or laboratory studies).

"Scientific meetings are intended to provide a forum for researchers to present new work to colleagues; the work presented may be preliminary and may have undergone only limited peer review," the authors write. "Frequently, the presentations represent work in progress. Unfortunately, many projects fail to live up to their early promise; in some cases, fatal flaws emerge. Press coverage at this early stage may leave the public with the false impression that the data are in fact mature, the methods valid, and the findings widely accepted. As a consequence, patients may experience undue hope or anxiety or may seek unproved, useless, or even dangerous tests and treatments," they add.

"In the 3 to 3.5 years after the meetings, 50 percent of the 147 abstracts were published in the high-impact journals, while 25 percent were published in low-impact journals, 25 percent remained unpublished," according to the researchers. "The publication record for the 39 presentations that received prominent (front page) newspaper coverage was almost identical to the overall publication rate," the authors report.

The researchers suggest that to better serve the public reporters should emphasize the preliminary nature of the information presented and the scientists presenting at the meetings also should emphasize the limitations of their work when being interviewed by the media.

Schwartz and Woloshin are supported by Veterans Affairs Career Development Awards in Health Services Research and Development. This study was supported by a National Cancer Institute grant.