What we talk about when we talk about research findings in the news

What happens when journalists report the findings of a scientific study to the general public? Often, the findings are stated out of context, broadly interpreted, and stripped of the nuance and uncertainty that characterize much of scientific research.  Should this scare us back from publicizing findings to a wider audience than you might typically find in a scientific journal? Or is publicity critical to uptake?

What is our responsibility as scientists to communicate our findings, not only through dedicated dissemination and implementation planning, but also through the popular press?

Here’s a recent example. JAMA published the findings of a study by Mandager et al.  on the association of cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF) with long-term mortality. CRF was measured by exercise treadmill testing in a sample of over 120,000 patients who were having this test done anyway as part of their care (that means these people were mostly being evaluated for symptoms potentially related to cardiovascular disease). The investigators quantified CRF as peak estimated METs. They separated by sex and age to calculate percentiles and then stratified CRF based on those percentiles. They used public and hospital records to determine mortality. Median follow-up was 8.4 years. The investigators concluded that CRF was significantly inversely associated with all-cause mortality (i.e., the fitter you are, the less likely you are to die). They went on to state that low CRF was as risky as or riskier than diabetes, CAD, or smoking. They also noted, importantly, that “there does not appear to be an upper limit of aerobic fitness above which a survival benefit is no longer observed”, but “there continues to be uncertainty regarding the relative benefit or potential risk of extreme levels of exercise and fitness”. They go on to offer several other sensible caveats, including that the study population may not be representative of the general population, and there are potentially significant unmeasured factors in this retrospective study. All things considered, though, this seems to represent very good news: a modifiable factor is strongly associated with increased longevity in a large sample with a long follow-up.  Bravo!

So how did this get reported in the popular press? Gizmodo’s headline reads “No Such Thing As Too Much Exercise, Study Finds”.

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