Distorting the story? The reporting of research in the media.

Simon Baron-Cohen, a prominent autism researcher in the UK just published an excellent commentary in the New Scientist about the responsibilities of journalists who cover scientific research stories.

Here is the link to the commentary: Media distortion damages both science and journalism

When media reports state that scientist X of Y university has discovered that A is linked to B, we ought to be able to trust them. Sadly, as many researchers know, we can’t.

This has three serious consequences. For starters, every time the media misreports science, it chips away at the credibility of both enterprises. Misreporting can also engender panic, as people start to fear the adverse consequences of the supposed new link between A and B. Lastly, there can be a damaging effect on researchers’ behaviour. Funding agencies and science institutions rightly encourage scientists to communicate with the media, to keep the public informed about their research and so foster trust. If their work is misrepresented, they may withdraw into the lab rather than risk having to spend hours setting the record straight.

Baron-Cohen goes on to state that in his field — autism research — which he calls “sensitive”, there have been a number of tragic distortions of research findings by the media. The most notable one is the Andrew Wakefield case, in which research findings, and the subsequent reporting of these findings linking autism to the MMR vaccine, led to marked (and persistent) decreases in immunizations rates across the UK. Baron-Cohen also describes his own challenges with having his research findings distorted by journalists and highlights how something as seemingly benign as an inaccurate headline, subtitle or picture caption can take on a life of its own, even when the facts are presented accurately in an accompanying story.

The final two paragraphs of the commentary really hit home. Baron-Cohen notes that the reason why we have ethics review boards is to regulate scientists and science as, realistically, harm can result to the public in the conduct of research. He asks if we shouldn’t also consider some kind of separate regulation of journalists prior to allowing the publication of stories on scientific research findings in the mass media. This wouldn’t be the jurisdiction of an ethics review board, certainly, but some other kind of body. Right now, we do ask researchers to consider how their results will be disseminated — but mostly in order to try to make sure that researchers inform participants about how the results will be used and reported. Ethics review boards certainly can’t ensure that the research findings are reported properly. This should be the responsibility of the individual researchers. But as the commentary describes, even the most responsible researcher who presents the most accurate account of research findings to a knowledgeable journalist can end up with a headline or picture caption that takes the story in a whole new, and inaccurate, direction.

Inaccurate or inflated reporting of research findings, exaggerating the importance of research outcomes or representing correlation as causation are all things that can happen in media reports of scientific research. Arguably, this can cause real harm. While journalists do have professional codes of ethics, it is understandably tempting to publish a more sensational headline that makes the front page, instead of the moderate, safe and perhaps more accurate headline that will be passed over by most readers. As Baron-Cohen notes, though, the fallout from this can be tragic for all involved.

Thank you to BG for pointing me to this story.

~ by Nancy Walton on March 27, 2009.

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