Unfortunately, that study everyone was so hyped about doesn't exist.
It all started with a Loyola University news release. In it Dr. John Milner, a urologist and an assistant professor in Department of Urology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, warns that iced tea contains high levels of oxalate* (a chemical known to cause calcium stones, which are the most common type of kidney stone) and that, therefore, drinking a lot of iced tea might increase an individual's risk of developing kidney stones. (In case you're wondering: Dr. Milner went on to say in the release that hot tea -- which also contains oxalate -- is less of a concern merely because people in the U.S. don't consume as much of it as they do its iced counterpart.)
All together the information in the release was pretty interesting stuff and I actually learned a lot from it. What I didn't learn was why Loyola University wrote it. So I did what I would think most journalists would do and I called the press office (the phone number for which was conveniently located at the top of the news release). I spoke with one of the media relations people and asked whether there was a study attached to this release or if it was just a helpful tip. I was told it was the latter and we said our goodbyes. That call of less than 2 minutes killed my story and gave life to this blog post.
As a reader of science journalism you deserve to know that it is (regrettably) common for reporters to rewrite press releases without doing any additional reporting. Sometimes it's as blatant as cut-and-paste, other times it's more subtle, like using a expert's quotation** from a press release while neglecting to mention that you never actually spoke with the expert.*** These things are frowned upon by many journalists but seem to survive thanks to the high demand for quick turnarounds in science news. But are journalists really earning their keep if they are just copying another person's work?
What's worse about the particular case I've outlined here is that it wasn't just deception, it was a lie (albeit probably an unintentional one). Although there has been research questioning the link between kidney stones and iced tea in the past, the science hasn't been conclusive and there was no new study about this topic. And yet, this place and this place and this place said there was. Maybe they read something I didn't...or maybe I just spent an extra two minutes on the phone.
You may be shocked by this fact fabrication but it's not uncommon. When deadlines are flying by and the pressure to produce is at full force, accidents are bound to happen. In other words: don't make the writers of the articles I've cited here into scapegoats, look at the bigger picture.
Press release dependence isn't going anywhere, neither is its instigator, publishing pressure. So long as they exist, mistakes (like made up studies) will happen. That doesn't mean we can't do something about it. As a journalist I can make sure I don't end up having a PR person ghostwrite for me. As a reader, you can protect yourself from ramshackle reporting. Here's how:
- Look up the studies you read about in the scientific literature. (I know, when pigs fly.)
- Read other articles about the studies. Do they have conflicting facts? Do they have disturbingly identical facts? Yes to this second question means the writers just cut-and-pasted the press release (or that it's a syndicated piece from the same writer, which is perfectly acceptable -- don't go crazy until you compare the bylines).
- If you're reading an article all about one study: Does the article tell you anything about the study besides the fact that it exists? (For example: Does it say who the participants were, how many people were involved, what happened during the study?) If the article you are reading is about one single study, it makes sense that the writer would include the most basic facts about that study. If these aren't present you might be looking at another case of press release = study.
I don't like calling out other journalists and I don't intend to make a habit of it but saying there is a study when there isn't is a BIG deal. Hopefully these writers will present me with some study I overlooked and I can just be ashamed that I've been a big jerk. If not -- and that scenario does seem unlikely -- I can at least pretend that someone will learn something from this post and that journalism will be a little better for it.
*Oxalate can also be found in spinach, nuts, chocolate, and many other foods and drinks.
**If you want to be all proper about it: "Quote" is a verb, "quotation" is a noun. Mind blown? Courtesy of my UCSD writing lecturer, Dr. Madeleine Picciotto.
***If a journalist does use a canned quote (one from a press release), they should say it. Ex: "I can't believe this blog post is ridiculous enough to have footnotes," said Dr. Scienceperson in a press release.
And now from 6/27/2020: I left out the word "be." Eight years of editing and I still have errors!]