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Word choice is important when describing medical therapies, especially during COVID-19 outbreaks. The public relies on news media for health information and medical misinformation is often spread through news stories.1 Medical misinformation can affect health outcomes and polarize the public’s distrust in medical science.2 During a pandemic, the public’s trust in science and medical professionals is crucial. Thus, one would question the ethical responsibility of journalists, public officials, and others when using exaggerated language like game changers in describing COVID-19 therapies when only preliminary data are available.3 We evaluated the use of 11 prespecified terms used in news stories for exaggeration. We evaluated whether each new outlet was Health on the Net Foundation Code of Conduct (HONcode) certified—the oldest and most reliable indicator of credible, trustworthy, online health information.4
We adapted our methodology and superlative (defined as ‘an exaggerated or hyperbolical expression of praise’)5 terms from a previous study.6 Google News was searched from December 1, 2019 to March 24, 2020 for 11 prespecified terms with ‘coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’. Articles were screened and data were extracted by investigators (RO, TR, SN, MP) in duplicate, blinded fashion. Articles were excluded if they: (1) did not cover COVID-19, or (2) did not use a superlative to describe a therapy, vaccine, or detection method in an exaggerated manner. A pilot-tested Google form was used to extract data from each article which included the following items: article URL, publishing entity, superlative term(s) and frequency used, author’s background, whether the article described a therapy, detection method, or vaccine, and if it included clinical data. When articles describe a therapy, but fail to mention the treatment or treatment class, then ‘not mentioned’ was selected as the articles category. We determined Health on the Net’s Code of Conduct (HONcode) status by searching each website for the HON seal and cross-checked each website with their database.4
We screened 5636 news articles, of which 502 were focused on COVID-19 therapies. Of these 502 articles, 255 contained superlatives used in an exaggerated manner (255/502, 50.8%). We identified 616 superlative instances describing different therapies, vaccines, and detection methods. Only 16 articles provided clinical data (16/255, 6.3%) (table 1). Zero websites were HONcode certified (0/255, 0.0%).
The use of superlatives to sensationalize potential benefits of therapies, vaccines, and detection methods for COVID-19 was common in news articles that lacked data to support their claims. No websites were HONcode certified.4
Health-related misinformation is a challenge that has adversely affected public health.7 Publications suggest that healthcare professionals and journals have a larger online presence to combat false, inaccurate, or incomplete health information. Thus, to lessen the promotion of unfounded ‘cures’, ‘miracles’, and ‘life-saving’ treatments, vaccines, and detection methods surrounding COVID-19, we urge healthcare professionals to use the internet as a tool to combat these sensationalistic terms. We recommend that physicians join the Association for Healthcare Social Media—a non-profit organization that promotes healthcare professionals to establish an online presence in combating health-related misinformation.8
Contributors RO and MV conceived and planned the project. MP, SN, TR, and RO completed the data extraction and analysis portion of the project. RO and MV were responsible for project oversight and manuscript writing. MP carried out edits and submission of projects for publication.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.