The Decline of Accuracy in Science Communication: Who is to Blame?

The Authorea Team

Proper science reporting can take a while. And it should, as daily science news stories—new treatments, tests, products, and procedures—have a huge impact on consumers. While Americans' trust in the media is at an all-time historical low, still 4 in 10 Americans trust mass media. Many journalists are accused of cutting corners, sacrificing accuracy in an attempt to push interesting (and often false) scientific findings at vulnerable readers.

In Kill or cure?, Paul Battley lists Daily Mail’s "ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it." Below, we've included the list of articles associated with Aspirin, which apparently both causes and prevents cancer.

But Is Media 100% to Blame?

It’s easy to point fingers at journalists, who often have to meet many deadlines in a single day. But findings show that institutions may be to blame for the exaggeration, too. Press releases from universities, organizations, and scientists themselves may oversell research findings to reporters in hopes that it will break through the clutter and make big news. The use of descriptive words, both positive and negative, in research paper titles has increased dramatically over the past few decades.
That "Pasta Won't Make You Fat" Study Was Garbage blames scientists for the madness, "The press release mentioned that the participants' moderate pasta consumption was part of a Mediterranean diet, which has already been linked to weight loss, thanks to being plentiful in heart-healthy fats, fresh fruits and veggies, and lean protein. People could also probably lose weight eating cookies, if they consumed one tiny cookie along with an otherwise super-clean, 1,300-calorie diet. You see where this is going."
One study (Sumner 2014) concluded that exaggeration in news is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases. The paper found that when press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in news when the press releases were not exaggerated. The authors recommend improving the accuracy of academic press releases as it could reduce misleading health related news.
Data from Sumner Petroc, Vivian-Griffiths Solveiga, Boivin Jacky, Williams Andy, Venetis Christos A, Davies Aimée et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study BMJ 2014; 349 :g7015

What to do?

Readers must demonstrate to news sources that this issue is important to us. News sources must allot proper time, space, and training for journalists to perform proper science reporting. Reporters and writers must also be ready and receptive to reader feedback. One site, Health News Review evaluates health news coverage and assigns a grade for accuracy. Reporters are then notified of their performance.

How else can reporters improve? Some suggest that instead of focusing (and exaggerating) the findings of a single scientific study, reporters should emphasize instead the methodology and context of the study.  This is not limited to journalists only, scientists and organizations pushing press releases should be mindful of this too. Information put out by reputable sources influence those that need the information most.

Another suggestion is to make scientific papers open-access. Readers are unlikely to purchase a scientific paper to verify a journalist's claims, thus creating an imbalance. Removing the asymmetric information problem puts pressure on journalists to thoroughly examine the paper and scientific context for fear of negative feedback. In a Vox article, Crystal Steltenpohl, a graduate assistant at DePaul University says "being able to explain your work to a non-scientific audience is just as important as publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, in my opinion, but currently the incentive structure has no place for engaging the public."

Join Authorea as a champion of #OpenScience.  Write and annotate your work collaboratively and transparently.

References

  1. P. Sumner, S. Vivian-Griffiths, J. Boivin, A. Williams, C. A. Venetis, A. Davies, J. Ogden, L. Whelan, B. Hughes, B. Dalton, F. Boy, C. D. Chambers. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ 349, g7015–g7015 BMJ, 2014. Link

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