Science Journalism

September 18, 2009 at 4:05 pm (Media) (, , , , , )

The recent debate between Dr Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson (video currently available here) has led to this blog post. I feel that media coverage of scientific research could be a lot better than it currently is. I also have one or two suggestions as to how it could be improved.

Too often, we see stories in the mainstream media that are sensationalised, that are inaccurate, that misrepresent the evidence, or that distort evidence to fit in with the narrative that the broadcaster or newspaper wants to push.

I have seen headlines that report conclusions that actually contradict the research that is being reported – for example the Daily Mail headline that reported that scientists had discovered “the brain’s God-spot”.

I have seen arguments where the weight of evidence should lead inevitably to a conclusion that one side is almost certainly wrong reported as a controversy with both sides of the argument given equal prominence (and this is sometimes spuriously defended on the basis that coverage should be ‘balanced’ – balance is not the same thing as neutrality).

I have also seen stories on health that rely upon scientific evidence, but are written by non-specialists (for example a number of articles on MMR that were written by lifestyle journalists rather than science reporters).

What can be done? Others have argued for fewer science journalists and more science editors, and/or for more scientists to write articles themselves (perhaps by blogging on research).

I have one or two ideas myself. I will inevitably have been influenced by others in coming up with these ideas – I apologise if I have failed to credit anyone I should have, but I am afraid that I cannot recall which of these ideas are original thoughts or where I first heard those ideas I have picked up from others.

  1. Newspapers should publish corrections to articles they have run which are (in part or in whole) inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. These corrections should be made promptly and given due prominence.
  2. We need effective regulation of the press. The PCC should be given more powers – including perhaps the power to fine newspapers that print inaccurate, misleading or distorted articles. It might be worthwhile examining the make-up of the PCC: are there too many representatives from the press; are there people (perhaps experts) who are not represented but should be?
  3. When reporting on scientific research, newspapers should properly cite (or at least give sufficient information about the provenance of) the original research. In online articles, newspapers should link to the original research where possible. The New York Times seems to be able to do so – why can’t others?
  4. If newspapers and broadcasters are being urged to link to and/or properly cite original research, might it also be worth including a plain language summary in academic papers? The Cochrane Collaboration, for example, already produces systematic reviews with plain language summaries.
  5. Editors can help by allowing their science reporter to cover big stories about health and science rather than handing them over to lifestyle columnists in order to get a more controversial (for ‘controversial’ read ‘inaccurate, distorted or misleading’) piece.
  6. We (blogger, twitterers etc.) can help by promoting initiatives such as the NHS Behind The Headlines website which cuts through the nonsense reported in the press and gives accurate summaries of the research that is being misreported.
  7. Scientists can play their part by contacting newspapers that have misrepresented their research and asking that the newspaper allows them to respond in print and point out to readers where the paper has misreported the research (they could contact the editor or issue a press release themselves, as I think Ben Goldacre suggests in his book Bad Science).
  8. On the THES website, Jon has his own suggestion for scientists: “as a scientist, I accept responsibility for the content of press releases about my research, working with our press office to prepare them, just as much as I accept responsibility for the content of my research papers. Every sensationalist press release out there has been signed off by the lead scientist involved – and they need to take those outputs more seriously in many cases.”
  9. Journalists could make clear when writing about a single study thatthey are “only presenting part of a story that is part of a larger landscape” (from a tweet by Evidence Matters).

More

Here is the THES report of the debate, where Jon’s comment appears. The Media’s MMR Hoax is perhaps the best example of the sidelining of specialist reporters.

The brain’s God-spot: here are five posts detailing my experience of complaining about an inaccurate headline in the Daily Mail. There was no prominent correction (they simply changed the headline for the online edition). The correction they did make was not even timely (it took a PCC complaint just to get the headline changed and the process took months – from my letter to the editor in March until a resolution in June).

NHS Behind The Headlines is on my blogroll in the “media blogs and resources” section.

For more comment on the debate, see Naomi Mc here taking issue with sensational reporting, and the way that “sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society’s prejudices”. The post also has some links to others blogging about the debate.

Here is a New York Times article that links to the abstract of the research being reported. I was interested to note that the headline read: “In One Study, a Heart Benefit for Chocolate”, a headline which instantly reminded me that whatever the study said it was only a single study. Here is a Cochrane plain language summary accompanying an abstract.

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8 Comments

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Science Journalism « Stuff And Nonsense [jdc325.wordpress.com] on Topsy.com said,

    […] Science Journalism « Stuff And Nonsense jdc325.wordpress.com/2009/09/18/science-journalism – view page – cached The recent debate between Dr Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson (video currently available here) has led to this blog post. I feel that media coverage of scientific research could be a lot better than it currently is. I also have one or two suggestions as to how it could be improved. — From the page […]

  2. DBH said,

    I think on the whole, getting science journalism to drastically improve on accuracy and honest reporting is verging on wishful thinking. Trash newspapers will always skew and distort scientific press releases, use shock and scaremongering tactics to boost sales. It is unfortunately all driven by money and a distinct fear in the public about health (which some of the newspapers induced in the first place).

    That’s why I completely agree with providing decent links to original papers, as well as for papers to include a lay summary of their work. This is being done for a lot of grant applications. I don’t see why it can’t be done for publications.

  3. jdc325 said,

    Thanks DBH. I think you are right that this is verging on wishful thinking. I’m not sure which of these ideas would be likely to catch on. I have previously called for the BBC and several national newspapers to adopt the suggestion re linking to / citing original research they report on, but didn’t get a single reply. I have also previously passed suggestions on reform of the PCC to the Media Standards Trust (in contrast to the MSM’s failure to respond I got a reply from the Media Standards Trust, who said they would take my comments as a response to the review they are conducting).

    I would be grateful for even small improvements, but am not optimistic that we will see any.

  4. dave mabus said,

    we’re pulling the plug on this bit of blasphemy called *Pharyngula*

    http://www.sotoman.info/freethinking/index.php?topic=1198.0

  5. theallseeingbeing said,

    Wow, you’ve been trolled by Mabus.

    Good work sir! And good post.

  6. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting. I’ve now read the recent post by PZ Myers and I think I can see why dave mabus has left the above comment. Pharyngula.

  7. JayAaroBe said,

    Perhaps this has already been suggested, but we as scientists would be wise to take it upon ourselves to become better “journalists” so to speak. If those who know their own research / data in their area of expertise are able to communicate more effectively to the lay person, then we could “cut out the middle man” and eliminate a lot of the inaccuracies.

  8. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for commenting. I think that Ben Goldacre would like more scientists to communicate with the public, perhaps by blogging.

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