Milwaukee oncologist Michael Thompson, MD, wrote to me yesterday morning (February 10) about an article: “A new study suggests that the heart rate sensor in the Apple Watch can predict COVID-19 for up to a week before a swab testt ”- promoted on Twitter by MacRumors.com. The story was about the so-called Warrior Watch Study at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
MacRumors is a website that claims it “appeals to a wide audience of consumers and professionals interested in the latest technologies and products. We also have an active community focused on purchasing decisions and technical aspects of the iPhone, iPod, iPad and Mac platforms. “
That broad audience may want to ask for more evidence and fewer rumors. Dr. Thompson liked and did not like what he saw, or rather, what he did not see. He tweeted:
You must link to the raw data in @jmirpub . That main source is not in your article or on February 9, 2021. @TechCrunch by @etherington. It’s hard to go through the data and understand how important this is without it. #scicomm
– Mike Thompson, MD, PhD, FASCO (@mtmdphd) February 10, 2021
MacRumors linked to a TechCrunch.com History It also did not link to the magazine article describing the investigation.
The MacRumors editor responded on Twitter:
Wrong. The journal in question is, in fact, open access. They searched for the source article but couldn’t find it, but that didn’t stop them from making sensational claims based on something written by another news source. Wow.
I had no difficulty find magazine article online, nor do other MacRumors readers. One of them pointed to the limitations of the research recognized by the researchers, something that MacRumors and TechCrunch ignored. Those limitations included: a small sample size, which the researchers admit limits their ability to determine how predictive this really can be; only “sporadic collection” of relevant data by Apple Watch; and the fact that the study was based on self-reported data, “which prevents independent verification of the COVID-19 diagnosis.” Dr. Thompson noted that those who were infected with COVID in the study were relatively young and primarily female, so the data may not be generalizable to the general population.
As always, when researchers recognize limitations to their work like these, it’s important for journalists to convey those limitations to readers before they rush off to make their new Apple Watch purchase.
A late change in history.
A link to the magazine article was added to the MacRumors story some time after it was published. The website shows that the original post was published at 1:27 a.m. on February 10 with an edit at 5:27 a.m. But the Internet Archive Wayback Machine The site scan at 10:06 am on February 10 did not show a link to the magazine article, as Dr. Thompson had stated. I wrote to the editor of MacRumors on Twitter about this, but have not yet received a response. Perhaps the change was made in response to criticism from readers.
What is wrong with this picture?
First, it’s weak journalism (Can you even call it journalism?) to report a story based at least in large part, if not solely, on what another tech website posted. This was MacRumors basically scraping what TechCrunch reported (and not very good to begin with) and then releasing it on their own website 10 hours later.
Second, this isn’t just the latest rumor about the Apple Watch. It’s a story that makes a sensational claim related to the early detection of COVID-19. And you’ll see below how some MacRumors readers were sucked into the claims of the story, all without any data provided.
Third, as originally published, there was no link or independent analysis of the journal article reporting on the Apple Watch study findings. As Dr. Thompson tweeted, “It’s hard to go through the data and understand how important this is without it.”
Fourth, it is not optimal web publishing practice to make a change (such as adding a link to the magazine article hours after publication) without noticing the change to readers. Dr. Thompson, who is one of the most web-savvy doctors I know, wrote to me: “The guy could have said. Whoops, my bad. I added it. Thanks man.”
Impact on readers
Several dozen reader comments posted in the MacRumors forum.
One reader commented: “Breaking news. Apple Watch cures the common cold and cancer. Run out fast and buy several. “
Another reader, apparently a physician who read the magazine’s manuscript, wrote: “This headline (” New Study Suggests Apple Watch Heart Rate Sensor Can Predict COVID-19 Up To One Week Before A Swab Test ” ) is misleading. The watch CANNOT predict infection one week before the swab detects COVID. “
But another comment from a reader is exemplary from the other end of the spectrum: “The Apple Watch could very well end up being one of the most important medical devices ever made in human history.” Unless, of course, this comment was intended to be sarcastic. But there were other great reactions from readers, generated to some extent, in my opinion, by “journalism”, as we saw in this case.
In addition to the MacRumors and TechCrunch stories, 24/7 WallSt.com posted something that was based on the MacRumors article, which was based on the TechCrunch article. Are you still dizzy? Still not impressed?
This wasn’t even news
In mid-January 2021, about a month ago, CBS News, AppleInsider.com (based on the CBS story), Tom’sGuide.com, and 9to5Mac.com reported stories based on that November preprint.
If you really wanted to do a decent job on this topic this week, you might have had a reporter studying the November preprint for the past three months, getting a lot of perspectives from independent experts. It could have included some of the insights reported at least seven to nine months ago on other research in the field.
Instead, readers didn’t get much in all this time.
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