The Daily Mail and My PCC Complaint

May 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm (Bad Science, Media) (, , , , , , )

Sorry to leave the thrilling topic of chiropractic, but I’ve had an email today that I thought might interest you. I promise I’ll get back to blogging on chiropractic soon. Now, as some of you may recall, I wrote to the Daily Mail to complain about two articles they wrote: one regarding an increased risk of Age-Related Macular Degeneration due to excessive consumption of red meat, and one that was headlined “Scientists discover the brain’s ‘God spot’… and show that faith helps human survival”. The Mail didn’t even bother to respond to my complaint so I contacted the Press Complaints Commission (I also complained to the PCC about the Daily Telegraph at the same time). The PCC has now responded to my complaint about the Daily Mail, which I shall share with you below – although I am still waiting to hear about a similar complaint regarding the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the red meat story (who, like the Mail, failed even to give me the courtesy of a response when I complained, let alone admit fault with their story or make changes). I think that the PCC has decided that the Telegraph’s headline and coverage are acceptable and I doubt that the Telegraph have even been contacted.

You can read my original blog post on the blindness story, the complaint to the Daily Mail, and the PCC complaint via this link. The blog post on the “God Spot” story is here.

The email I received from the PCC now follows:

The Commission initially considered your complaints about the articles “Scientists discover the brain’s ‘God spot’ and show that faith helps human survival” [Fail], “Too much red meat could lead to blindness, claim scientists [Torygraph]” and “Too much red meat could leave you blind, scientists warn” [Fail]. Several Commissioners shared your concern about the article “Scientists discover the brain’s ‘God spot’ and show that faith helps human survival” and asked me to contact the Daily Mail for its comments. Please find the newspaper’s reply attached to this email. The primary aim of the Commission is the resolution of complaints wherever possible. As you can see, the newspaper has admitted that the headline did not accurately reflect the contents of the article and has amended the online headline (linky). The newspaper has also archived your comments for future reference. Do let me know whether this action to represent an acceptable means of resolving your concerns. An added benefit of resolving the matter is that a summary of your complaint – with your consent and a wording agreed by you – will be published on our website and in our bi-annual report. This will act, importantly, as a further public record of your concerns and the subsequent remedial action taken by the newspaper. In any case, before a decision can be made as to how this matter might be taken forward, I should be grateful to receive any further comments you may wish to make within seven days, or sooner, if convenient. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance to you.

[I added the names of the newspapers after the offending headlines and altered the URL as the Mail’s version is unwieldy, but the rest of the text is unchanged.]

First up, we have the complaints about red meat and AMD. Here’s what I’m sending to the PCC: Despite my complaining that the scientists had stated “A high level of red meat consumption may be a risk factor for early AMD, or act as a marker for a group of people with an increased risk from other lifestyle factors” [my italics] and that a spokesperson for the Royal College of Ophthalmology [RCOP] had asserted that “The evidence is still not strong enough to merit any advice to the public”, no action has been taken regarding my complaint about the Mail’s coverage of the study into red meat and AMD (the same goes for my complaint about the Telegraph’s coverage). If the evidence is not strong enough to merit any advice to the public, then why is it acceptable for the Mail to claim that “Too much red meat could leave you blind, scientists warn” in the headline to their article? It’s also worth noting that, aside from the headline, there is also a misleading statement in the body of the article: “Eating too much red meat can raise the risk of going blind by half, research has shown.” The Telegraph also misleadingly claimed (in their sub-headline) that “Eating too much red meat can raise the risk of blindness by half, according to a new study.” This is contrary to figures given in the AMD guidelines of the RCOP. I strongly disagree with the contention of the Daily Mail’s Group Managing Editor that “far from being misleading, the headline on this article is fair when read in conjunction with the piece itself” and I would assert that both the Mail and the Telegraph are misleading readers by their inaccurate headlines and (respectively) body text and sub-headline.

Now for the the second part of my email to the PCC – regarding the Mail’s “God Spot” headline and story. It is my opinion that the amended Daily Mail headline (that now runs “Research into the brain’s ‘God spot’ shows that faith helps human survival”) remains in the category of “misleading and inaccurate”. I originally complained that the article was distorted and misleading and specifically complained that “It was also inaccurate in that the scientists in question hadn’t, in fact, shown that faith helps human survival – this was opinion that was tacked onto the headline and presented as fact”. The amended headline still asserts that the research shows that “faith helps human survival” and I think that this assertion is inaccurate and misleading, given that this part of the headline seems to be based on speculation rather than the research covered in the article.

The Daily Mail’s response to the PCC is available as a PDF here: God Spot.

EDIT: I’ve just checked the Mail’s article again and the headline has changed for a second time. The old url now redirects to http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1160904/Research-brains-God-spot-reveals-areas-brain-involved-religious-belief.html

Research into brain’s ‘God spot’ reveals areas of brain involved in religious belief

3 Comments

  1. Matthew Cain said,

    Out of curiosity, was the complaint resolved or did it get sent to adjudication? I couldn’t find a record of it on the PCC site

  2. jdc325 said,

    I gave in and accepted that the final version of the headline (the one quoted in the ‘edit’ above) was as accurate as the Mail could manage.

    It actually took from the middle of March to the end of June just to get a headline changed to something less misleading than the original.

    The PCC did say, though, that there would be a summary on their website and that it would also appear in the PCC’s next biannual report.

  3. The People’s Medical Journal « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] trivially, there was also the time I complained about a misleading headline. It took three months and a number of emails and letters (between me and the PCC, and between the […]

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