What if a big study is done and nobody reports it?

Paul Alper writes:

Your blog often contains criticisms of articles which get too much publicity. Here is an instance of the obverse (inverse? reverse?) where a worthy publication dealing with a serious medical condition is virtually ignored. From Michael Joyce at the ever-reliable and informative Healthnewsreview.org:

Prostate cancer screening: massive study gets minimal coverage. Why?

The largest-ever randomized trial of using the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test in asymptomatic men over the age of 50 has found — after about 10 years of follow-up — no significant difference in prostate cancer deaths among men who were screened with a single (“one-off”) PSA test, and those who weren’t screened. . . .

Two things caught our attention here.

First, that this “largest-ever” trial did not get large coverage in the mainstream press. In fact, none of the nearly two dozen US news outlets that we check every weekday wrote about it.

Second, it reminded us that even when coverage of screening is actually large, it often falls short in two very important ways. . . .

Here’s what the researchers reported:

– The cohort included 400,000 men without prostate symptoms, ages 50-69, enrolled at nearly 600 doctors’ offices across England

– 189,386 men had a one-off PSA test vs 219,439 men who had no screening

– After ~ 10 years: 4.3% of the screened group was diagnosed with prostate cancer vs 3.6% of the unscreened (control) group (authors attribute most of this difference to low-grade, non-aggressive cancers)

– Despite finding more cancer in the screened group, the authors found both groups had the same percentage of men dying from prostate cancer, and that percentage was very low: 0.29%

As of our publishing this article — two days after the British study was published — coverage of this “largest-ever” trial remains scant. Is it because it’s a European study? Unlikely — the results were featured prominently in one of the most prestigious US medical journals and promoted with an embargoed news release. Or, because it represents a so-called ‘negative’ or non-dramatic finding? (That is, no increase in prostate cancer deaths between the two groups found.) Who knows.

But it stands in stark contrast to the mega-coverage we’ve documented for many years on other prostate cancer screening studies that are typically much less rigorous — and which often trumpet an imbalanced, pro-screening message about prostate cancer. . . .

It’s an interesting issue of selection bias in what gets reported, what is considered to be news.

The post What if a big study is done and nobody reports it? appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.