Sensationalism in Science News

Obesity Panacea at PLoS Blogs has a good article on something science journalists tend to do wrong, and how to fix it. For our purposes, we can take it as something journalists tend to do wrong, and to make sure to be aware of it and not misinterpret science news as a result.

All too frequently, newspapers portray individual studies as the definitive answer on a given topic.  This is a problem because most studies are not the definitive answer on anything. That is why researchers are constantly trying to replicate each  others’ work.

Just because one study finds a relationship between A and B, does not mean that other studies will be able to replicate that finding, or that it will extend to other situations. On the face of it, this seems like an incredibly obvious statement.  And yet it’s something that newspapers often forget, and which I think could have some very negative consqeuences.

… To be honest, all journalists really need to do is dial back the enthusiasm a bit, rather than painting every study as a GROUNDBREAKING NEW FINDING.

Journalists may also want to shift away from writing about individual studies, and look instead to systematic reviews. This is what researchers and policy-makers are doing already.  We know that many published findings turn out to be false (some have argued that most findings are false) and so when we want to know the definitive answer to a question, we look at systematic reviews rather than individual studies.

Trying to understand the health impact of any given behaviour (e.g. sedentary behaviour, physical activity, smoking, etc) is a bit like trying to make a map of a city by taking thousands of independent pictures using different angles, distances, and resolution, without knowing how all the pictures link together. Any one picture (or study) tells you relatively little about the city, and some pictures may seem to contradict (e.g. one picture may suggest the city is grassland, while another picture may suggest it is incredibly urban). But if you take enough pictures from enough angles, you start to get a pretty good sense of what the city looks like.

Systematic reviews are an attempt to bring order to that chaos by organizing the pictures, grouping types of pictures together, and placing more weight on the high quality pictures, while reducing the emphasis of low quality pictures, or simply throwing them out entirely.

If journalists focused more on systematic reviews rather than individual studies (and there are plenty of systematic reviews coming out these days), they’d be less likely to steer people in the wrong direction, and more likely to be spreading a message that will hold up over the long term.

The problem is that asking news outlets to be less sensational is probably not going to happen as long as sensationalism is what sells. The change should start, I think, with the readers – rewarding good science writing and complaining about the bad. We have to be mature enough to understand that studies can be important without being life-changing, and that studies can be interesting without being definitive. For that, I think we need a more scientifically literate public, so it’s all a rather circular problem. 

You may not need any more examples of this, but if you read the full article, the author, Travis Saunders, provides an example of how newspaper articles poorly representing science are dangerous, in this case in reporting on the relative health risks to inactive children of TV or video games or computer use. Science is our best tool for knowing how to take care of ourselves, so we have to be able to trust what we hear about current scientific progress, and this trust is shaken when media outlets continuously declare contradicting definitive results. 

So let’s do our part to fix this problem, and read (and discuss) more science!

Edit: A recent article at New Scientist discusses some shortcomings of science reporting more generally, and again how journalists can fix this issue. 

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