Following on from my whining and moaning about the BBC not giving details of a paper on a pentaherbs formulation for eczema, I sent an email. I complained that there had been at least two health/science stories recently that were so devoid of detail it was difficult to track down the papers that the news reports had been based on (“I’ve been unimpressed with recent coverage of science/health stories – particularly the lack of detail. For example, failing to include the study author’s name”). I also complained about the selective reporting of positive findings and the omission of any negative findings in the BBC report on herbs for eczema (“Initially, I was disappointed by the lack of detail in your report. On reading the original papers, I was further disappointed by the selective reporting of the papers by the BBC”). The Health Editor of the BBC website replied:
Many thanks for your message. As the is site intended for lay readers, it is our editorial policy not to give specific references to pieces in journals, as is the practice in national newspapers. In both instances the name of the journal and research institution is featured prominently in the story. In addition, we provide web links to the relevant journals.
I replied to the BBC’s email as follows:
Thanks for your response. I still feel it would be helpful (even to lay readers such as myself) if details such as the author’s name were given, as this makes it easier to search for the paper(s) that a news story is based on. A proper reference to the paper in question would be even better.
Can I also ask why the BBC reported on the positive findings of the papers (the improvement in ‘quality of life’ and the reduced use of medication), but ignored the negative aspects (the increased risk of adverse events in the TCHM group and the greater improvement in SCORAD scores in the placebo group)?
As somebody has pointed out to me, references provide a way of instantly checking the facts behind a story. It feels patronising to effectively be told that lay readers don’t need references / can’t understand academic papers and, given the BBC’s recent reporting of academic papers, I don’t think that the BBC are best placed to decide who can or cannot understand a scientific paper.
I’d like the BBC to include proper references to the academic papers they report on. Failing that, brief details such as the author’s name would at least give us a clue. Lay reader or not, if I can’t be trusted with details of the original paper then how can I see if a report is accurate? It does seem to me to be a very patronising attitude, “our reporters read the papers – so you don’t have to”. I hope I’m being over-sensitive and this is not actually the BBC’s intention.