When the media cites a research report, consumers expect them to at least have read it first.
Multiple liberal outlets cited a recently released study from researchers from the European Society of Cardiology. They parroted the researchers' claim that men should stop drinking six months before fertilization to reduce the risk of congenital heart defects in children (CHDs). The problem is, as ARS Technica pointed out on Oct. 8, “the question of whether six dry months before fertilization could reduce the risk of congenital heart defects” wasn’t even addressed in the study.
“The researchers didn’t even have the data to know if any fathers abstained from alcohol for that long prior to helping [make a baby],” according to ARS Technica. “It seems that the now-widespread recommendation was merely the researchers’ personal opinions, which were oddly included in the press release and don’t appear to be based on any evidence from their study or otherwise.”
Outlets like Reuters, CNN, Newsweek and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette fell prey to the baseless conclusions of the researchers and failed to account for multiple flaws in their study’s methodology.
Reuters, for example, cited the following statement in its Oct. 8 reporting on the study:
“The study results suggest that men should stop drinking alcohol at least six months before trying to conceive, and that women should stop at least one year before trying to have a baby, Qin said in a statement.”
Newsweek also quoted a statement by Qin on Oct. 3, who stated, “If women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, we suggested that parents should resolutely avoid alcohol consumption six months or one year before and during the pregnancy."
What the study did account for was whether paternal drinking within three months of fertilization influenced the risk of CHDs. It even accounted for, “mind-bogglingly,” drinking three months “after” fertilization, ARS Technica criticized. But the results were based on what ARS Technica considered, “messy methods.”
ARS Technica also pointed out that correlation does not equal causation:
“[T]he study can only point out a correlation between parental drinking and CHDs. It can’t determine if drinking causes CHDs. Moreover, the heart of the data—parental alcohol use [both maternal and paternal]—is also based on survey responses, which can be unreliable because people may not accurately report (or admit) how much they really drink.”
CNN pushed the researchers’ opinions in an Oct. 3 article headlined, “Dads-to-be should stop drinking 6 months before conception for baby's heart health, study says.”
CNN’s Sandee LaMotte wrote,
“Compared to non-drinkers, fathers who drank during the three months before conception were 44% more likely to have babies born with congenital heart disease. … If the prospective dads were binge drinkers, which was defined as downing five or more drinks per session, there was a 52% higher likelihood their baby would have a congenital heart defect.”
ARS Technica illustrated the main problem: “[W]hen they broke down that link [between parental alcohol and drinking before conception] to specific types of CHDs, only maternal drinking was statistically significantly linked to a higher risk of just one of the types of CHD—called tetralogy of Fallot, which is a rare CHD that leads to low oxygen levels in the blood.”
The study included data taken from 55 other studies in their “meta-analysis” (a conglomeration of multiple past studies lumped into one), but, said ARS Technica, “only 24 of those studies included any data on paternal alcohol consumption, and only nine included data from fathers who had reported binge drinking.”
CNN, HealthDay News, U.S. News & World Report, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made the same mistake of parroting the researchers’ six-month abstention opinion for men not based on their actual research, but were some of the only outlets that conceded a pivotal point in their Oct. 3, Oct. 4, and Oct. 5, reports respectively: “[That] the study doesn't prove that drinking causes heart defects, only that the two appear related.”
ABC Radio also cited commentary from the director of pediatric cardiology at the Mt. Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital, Dr. Robert Pass, on Oct. 10, who conceded that meta-analyses “‘can sometimes be very helpful, but there are many limitations. Sometimes the data is not 100% accurate.’” He also cautioned against making recommendations “based on one study,” which is essentially what multiple media outlets did, including US News and HealthDay News.
ARS Technica also pointed out that the charts used within the study itself didn’t illustrate a linear relationship between drinking and risk of CHDS. “[F]athers who reported drinking up to 50 grams of alcohol per day (around 3.5 standard US drinks) seemed to have a lower risk of fathering a child with a CHD than non-drinkers (although this dip wasn’t statistically significant),” noted ARS Technica.