PR-reviewed data

August 15th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, churnalism, survey data | 25 Comments »

Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, 15 August 2009

You will have noticed – from the fish oil pill saga, and the Herceptin coverage – that journalists can cheerfully make grand claims for a product which would be impossible in any advert. This week the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the Daily Express newspaper repeatedly tried to circumvent advertising rules by running pages with a glowing, supposedly editorial article about a miracle product, and then a more sanitised, paid-for advert at the bottom.

The results were predictably dowdy: Christopher Biggins’ mum talking about the cure for her arthritis; LipoBind weight loss pills; and a magnetic menopause product called LadyCare, which you place over your groin, and which I can only fairly describe as a fanny magnet.

But direct payment is not the only way to get editorial coverage, as we can see by tracing LipoBind’s impressive media profile over the past year. In April 2009 the Telegraph published an article headlined “half of women have muffin top waistlines“, based on new “research… the ‘Waist Lines’ report… compiled by weight management supplement LipoBind”. In December 2008 they ran with “Kelly Brook has the body most women crave“, a “new study” on women’s beliefs about their weight by “researchers” for “the weight management supplement LipoBind”. In September 2008 it was “Truckers and lawyers top list of Britain’s fattest professions”, with two whole paragraphs of quotes from the LipoBind spokesman. These are news stories in a national newspaper.

Where does all this research come from? The Telegraph is not alone. The Mirror covered more LipoBind studies (lots of brides would like to have plastic surgery, and so on). In August the Daily Mail had Katy Hill recreating that bikini scene from James Bond, as part of another LipoBind survey.

Most if not all of these surveys are conducted by OnePoll. They won’t tell me anything about the questions they asked, the responses they got, or the people responding, so I couldn’t possibly assess whether their results are sound, but I doubt it. To gather a representative and scientific sample of the UK population giving thoughtful responses they have a website which says: “Register using our simple sign-up form and start earning cash right now.”  To companies, they offer a “no coverage, no fee price structure”, with tailored seduction for journalists, and other services which include “mining the data”.

image Media analysis company GroupM forecast that advertising revenues for newspapers will be down 25% this year. They are short of cash, they are short of money to pay people to fill their pages, and they print PR-reviewed “research” straight from the press release, because it’s quick and it’s cheap: these stories are now ubiquitous, but they’re not science, or research, or reports, or studies, nor are they news. Even the accompanying photographs of celebrity Katy Hill – which papers would normally have to pay for – are provided by LipoBind. These articles are adverts.

And nobody is immune. I love the Guardian. On Monday we printed a news article about a “report” “published” by Nuffield Health, headlined “No sex please, we’re British and we’re lazier than ever”. “This is the damning conclusion of a major new report published today,” says the press release from Nuffield about a document they call the “Nuffield Health Fitness Report”. News? I asked Nuffield’s press office for a copy of the new report, but they refused, and explained that the material is all secret. The Guardian journalist can’t have read it either. I don’t really see how this “report” has been “published”, and in all honesty, I wonder whether it even exists, in any meaningful sense, outside of a press release.

Nuffield Health are the people who run private hospitals and clinics which you can’t afford. In the week when the NHS is under attack from all sides in the US, The Guardian gave free advertising to Nuffield, for their unpublished published “report”, which nobody even read, in exchange for 370 words of content. This is endemic, and it creeps me out.


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25 Responses



  1. Michael Grayer said,

    August 15, 2009 at 12:44 am

    Are there such things as systematic reviews of newspaper stories? They’d make very interesting reading, especially if they were conducted alongside and compared to systematic reviews of academic journal articles on the same topic…

  2. fftyfv said,

    August 15, 2009 at 2:05 am

    Well done for not holding back against your employer, Mr Goldacre. The criticism is important because journalistic self-censorship is still so omnipresent, and the ‘liberal’ side of the media harbors much bad stuff that is disguised all the better because of where it is.

    Let’s hope the entire piece has passed the editors.

  3. peterd102 said,

    August 15, 2009 at 4:32 am

    Its clever, people would rather read what they think of as an article than an advert. Ive seen advertisements get by in review magazines mocked up like the publication. The difference being is that those give you a chance with “ADVERTISEMENT” in the top right. These don’t give you that chance to run – makes them all the more despicable for it.

    On the Plus side – I almost exploded at “Fanny magnet” – Badscience – Now Nob and fanny jokes.

  4. Staphylococcus said,

    August 15, 2009 at 6:27 am

    #2, I’ve often wondered if the lack of material directed at The Guardian was a reflection of their higher standards (which I doubt) or that it would likely be edited out and hence a waste of time typing it out in the first place.

  5. fontwell said,

    August 15, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Must also congratulate you on “Fanny magnet” – genuine lol.

    The rest of the article was OK too.

  6. drunkenoaf said,

    August 15, 2009 at 8:06 am

    @Michael Grayer: read Flat Earth News by Nick Davies; he has lots of analysis of just this type of churnalism and comes to (one) conclusion that there’s so much pressure on most journos to produce content, there’s no time to check facts or care about the quality. Press releases that can be easily rehashed are so tempting to use.

  7. Tileman said,

    August 15, 2009 at 9:14 am

    I have to second the recomendation for flat earth news
    www.flatearthnews.net/

  8. zeno said,

    August 15, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I third it. Well worth reading, but depressing.

  9. fftyfv said,

    August 15, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Medialens are particularly good, too.

    Very good at dissecting news stories. I subscribe to their ‘media alerts’ which drop in to your inbox evry fornight or so, and provide illuminating critical analysis of the ‘best’ UK media (Guardian, BBC, etc).

    They have written two books: ‘Guardians of Power’ and ‘Newspeak for the 21st Century

  10. apatheticblues said,

    August 15, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    I wish newspapers would realise that one of the reasons their advertising revenue is plummeting is because they are printing advertisements posing as news stories, simply because it’s an easy, cheap way to fill their pages. Why would an advertiser pay for glossy adverts that everybody blanks out by habit when they can get a newspaper to print it as a story for free (or for the price of employing a canny PR agency).

  11. CoralBloom said,

    August 15, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    I stopped buying newspapers years ago. Why? If the make such a mess of science reporting, then what about the rest (where I have much less background)?
    The press have made their own, fatal decisions.

  12. prescott said,

    August 17, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    Parkinson´s disease is caused by deterioration or death of certain neurons in a brain area known as substance nigra. These neurons produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting the signals between the substance nigra and the corpus striatum, upon a good muscle activity.
    The decrease in dopamine production in patients causes an inability to direct or control their movements as normal, due to lack of nerve cells in the striatum. Studies that findrxonline has shown that Parkinson’s patients have a loss of 80% or more of dopamine-producing cells in the substance nigra. The cause of this cell death or damage is unknown.

  13. sair-fecht said,

    August 17, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    On comment#1 – Now, maybe there is an idea of a job for some of those ‘Media Studies’ graduates who are currently seeking useful employment…? (though I wonder if their analytical skills would be up for it!)

  14. mikewhit said,

    August 17, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    #11: prescott – link spammer ! please block … in fact, how about adding a script that bounces any posting containing the dreaded Finn Drux link !

  15. theonlyrick said,

    August 18, 2009 at 10:51 am

    This isn’t to do with PR firms, but it’s a pretty fantastic example of Bad Science:

    www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/2592758/Bolt-outruns-buses-and-the-tube.html

  16. baldingdad said,

    August 18, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    #1 – Paul Wilson, Alision Booth and pals undertook a near-as-damn-it systematic review of trastuzumab coverage which was published in the JRSM:

    jrsm.rsmjournals.com/cgi/content/abstract/101/3/125

  17. austinresearch said,

    August 19, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I have recently read publicity about the Guardian Group struggling and seen campaigns asking readers to make sure they buy regular copies of the Guardian and Observer to ensure these great publications don’t go to the wall. Having purchased Sunday’s Observer imagine my glee when I was perusing through the magazine this morning (special gardening edition) and stumbled on pieces about the Dolly Rockers’ and Pixie Lott’s gardens. Utter drivel, written only with the hope of publicising their new releases. Observer reading gardeners seem to be a strange audience for the Dolly Rockers to target though.

  18. Lafayette said,

    August 19, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I saw some research on the fanny magnets a while back. I believe they recruited a load of menopausal women to wear them and then asked them if their symptoms persisted. The timeframe involved, and the response measured, seemed to suggest… well, I’m sure you can work the rest out…

  19. Synchronium said,

    August 19, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Fanny magnet, lol.

    You’d think the Guardian editor would run this kind of shit past you first, if only out of fear that you’ll flag it up. Seems hypocritical.

  20. foofdawg said,

    August 19, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed” – Mark Twain

    Might not be an exact quote, as I’m getting it from my memory, but I’ve always liked it.

  21. Svetlana Pertsovich said,

    August 21, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Ben,
    I tried to send this letter by e-mail to you. But there is overload in box :( So I write here.

    David Colquhoun wants to undergo an opearation. Look at here:
    www.dcscience.net/?p=2073
    Do you see it? “And now it looks as though I’ll be getting a partial or total nephrectomy too.”
    And here:
    www.dcscience.net/?p=1980
    Do you see David’s comment #6?

    It is not joke and not idle blabbing. He wants to do it really.

    I talked with him. He thinks that he has a cancer. It is complete nonsense! It is common overdiagnosis! The operation is not useless, moreover – harmfull and dangerous!
    Stop him, please. You are a doctor and his friend! Please!
    Or else this idiot will kill himself by his silly behaviour!
    He will listen to you.

    PLEASE! Save him!

  22. platothefish said,

    August 24, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Need to write a story exposing something there is no real evidence for? Easy create your own poll, get the office to complete it and just give the percentages as concrete results. Sky news does it all the time. I think it is a recognised research technique isn’t it? I am sure I remember something like this being taught during my Ph.D. I think it was sandwiched between factor analysis techniques and advance regression analysis.

  23. Griffiths said,

    August 27, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Is the answer to fight back? Science institutions, the RI, Universities and others, should start feeding the papers equally easy to print stories, but ones which are raising awareness of genuinely important developments and research. What actually happens is that potentially interesting work is buried, either in journals you need to pay to view, or in impenetrable jargon.

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