Background: Newspaper stories can impact behaviours, particularly in relation to research participation. It is therefore important to understand the narratives presented and ways in which these are received. Some work to date assumes journalism transmits existing medical knowledge to a passive audience. This study aimed to explore how newspaper articles present stories about medical research and how people interpret and use them. Design: Qualitative research methods were employed to analyse two data sets: newspaper articles relating to ‘rheumatoid arthritis’ and ‘research’ from UK local and national news sources; and existing transcripts of interviews with patients with rheumatoid arthritis and their carers. Results: Newspapers present a positive account of medical research, through a simple narrative with three essential components: an ‘innovation’ offers ‘hope’ in the context of ‘burden’. Patients frequently feature as passive subjects without attributed opinions. Few articles include patients’ experiences of research involvement. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis and their carers read articles about medical research critically, often with cynicism and drawing on other sources for interpretation. Conclusions: An understanding of the simple, positive narrative of medical research found in newspaper articles may enable researchers to gain mass media exposure for their work and challenge this typical style of reporting. The critical and cynical ways patients and carers read stories about medical research suggest that concerns about newspaper articles misinforming the public may be overstated, but any effect on research engagement is unknown. Newspaper articles rarely present patients’ views or their experiences of research, and this can be conceptualized as ‘depersonalization bias’.