Media Reporting of Research: Consistently Poor

April 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm (Bad Science, Media) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In fact, I think that the only thing that is consistent about the mainstream media’s reporting of research (particularly research that relates to health) is that it is poor. Supplements are, alternately, life-savers and… deadly cancer-causing killer pills. We all drink too much – but then again red wine is good for us. The articles tend to be misleading, inaccurate or distorted whether they are pro- or anti-vitamins (or red wine and other forms of alcohol, or whatever other example you wish to choose).

In fact, the Lay Science website recently posted an article pointing out the stunning hypocrisy of the Daily Fail’s two-faced stance on the HPV vaccine – campaigning for vaccines in Ireland and against vaccines in Britain. Which is not only self-contradictory, but is also dangerous (more here).

As for food supplements, the press reported in 1998 that:

TOO MUCH VITAMIN C CAN GIVE YOU THE BIG C; SCIENTISTS THINK IT HARMS DNA; TOO MUCH VITAMIN C CAN TRIGGER CANCER WARN SCIENTISTS […] TOO much vitamin C could trigger cancer and other diseases, scientists warned yesterday [Daily Mirror, 9th April]

LARGE doses of vitamin C may not be such a healthy option, research at Leicester University has suggested. Far from preventing diseases such as cancer and heart disease, vitamin C in large amounts might help trigger them [Times, 9th April]

The researchers at Leicester University, on the other hand, confirmed in an authors’ reply to responses published in Nature that:

“In conclusion, our results show a definite increase in 8-oxoadenine after supplementation with vitamin C. This lesion is at least ten times less mutagenic than 8-oxoguanine, and hence our study shows an overall profound protective effect of this vitamin.” [My italics].

So it seems that the vitamin-bashing, scaremongering articles of the mainstream media were inaccurate and least misleading (they may complain that they were misled by the original research or the press release that alerted them to the original research – in which case I have an old-fashioned remedy for them. It’s called fact-checking). But are pro-supplement stories as inaccurate? Sadly, yes. Even more sadly, I have to report that the mighty Guardian has been known to fall short in this department:

our modern diet – even post-Jamie Oliver – contains paltry amounts of oily fish (only fresh, not tinned, tuna counts). Most children are therefore officially deficient in omega-3.

Most children are officially deficient in omega-3? Really? Perhaps someone should inform the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency? Perhaps the Vegetarian Society should also be alerted given that proper vegetarians (unlike the fish-eating vegan Patrick Holford) do not consume any fish – whether oily or not – and vegetarians must be most at risk from this official omega-3 deficiency that the reporter in question has just invented. This official deficiency appeared in a story about Middlesbrough LEA’s intiative to see whether they could improve the academic performance and concentration of children aged eight to 11 (it seems their initiative preceded the infamous Durham trial). Linky. To be fair to the Guardian, they did also quote reputable persons who pointed out that the evidence base did not support fish oil supplementation in children and the Equazen trial initiative was (badly) covered by several media outlets (read more).

An even better example of the media getting it wrong is this story claiming that red wine “could help prevent breast cancer”. It was written by the same journalist who (only three months earlier) had written a piece pointing out that “A little alcohol ‘increases breast cancer risk'” (link). I won’t go into detail about the self-contradictory and dangerous article claiming that red wine could help prevent breast cancer, as Ben Goldacre has already done so here.

That several of these articles could have the effect of increasing the risk of cancer if taken seriously is coincidental (in fact, I’ve only just noticed that point myself). But it does bring home just how dangerous the inaccurate, misleading and distorted information that appears in our newspapers can be. Scaremongering about the HPV vaccine could leave girls unprotected from the virus and hence more likely to be at risk of cervical cancer; recommending red wine to prevent breast cancer could lead to an increase in risk of breast cancer; and scaremongering about vitamin C could conceivably leave people with concerns about eating vitamin C-rich foods and (again, conceivably) lead to an increase in cancer risk from fruit and veg refuseniks, although I consider this to be considerably less likely than the former two examples and therefore to be considerably less likely to pose a risk to health – and it’s worth remembering that, as Cancer Research UK point out:

The effect of fruit and vegetables on cancer risk is an extremely complex area of research requiring rigorous methods. It’s important to accurately record people’s food intake over a period of time and to separate the effect of fruit and vegetables from other dietary factors.”

“It’s also important to look at different types of cancer separately as research suggests that diet has different effects on different types of the disease.” [My italics.]


I can’t now find the original press articles I quoted for my bit on Vitamin C the deadly cancer-causing supplement, but high beam has a copy of the Mirror’s fail and I wrote about them here in October last year.

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