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Vol. 8, No. 3, 2005
Issue release date: August 2005

The Quality of Media Reports on Discoveries Related to Human Genetic Diseases

Holtzman N.A. · Bernhardt B.A. · Mountcastle-Shah E. · Rodgers J.E. · Tambor E. · Geller G.
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Objectives: To examine (1) the quality of media reports (newspapers, television and public radio) of genetic discoveries with medical relevance and (2) factors related to the completeness and balance of the stories. Methods: Analysis of the accuracy, balance, and completeness of 228 media stories reporting 24 genetic discoveries between 1996 and 2000 using a previously validated instrument. Results: Although usually accurate, the stories contained only 45.5 ± 13.8% (mean ± SD) of relevant items. Stories appearing on television and stories reporting discoveries of genes for rare diseases were the least complete. Stories in non-US English-speaking newspapers included more content items per word than US stories. Less balanced stories exaggerated the benefits of discoveries, ignored possible risks, and did not present a range of expert opinion. Scientists were sometimes the source of exaggeration. Conclusions: To increase the quality of media reports about genetic discoveries, stories should include more relevant items and be written by journalists skilled in science writing. Scientists will have to resist the tendency to exaggerate. These conclusions may apply to media stories of other discoveries as well.

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