Why is reporting on health and science so bad? Because the reporters can’t do their jobs.

Imagine this scenario: a sports reporter is asked to cover an emerging conflict in the Middle East. The sports reporter, never particularly keen on international affairs, is on a deadline and looks to see what they can use. There’s in-person video of the central events in question, but our journalist friend doesn’t have the necessary background or context to fully understand what happened. Is there something else? A press release from the US government and from one side of the conflict in the Middle East? Sounds like our sportsman is good to go! Just copy and paste the exciting bits, add in the little bit of context that our intrepid soul already has, and bingo. News has been reported!

Later, it turns out that our poor reporter has been duped! The press release from the Middle East was nothing but PR, empty words of propaganda to make things seem more important and interesting than they really are! Our friend from the sports section sighs, wishing he had asked someone who knew about this kind of thing who would have known what to look out for.

In a similar vein, Vox has an article asking why so many articles on health (and, let’s admit it, science) are junk. The culprit is identified as clearly as in our example above: coverage by those who don’t know, or don’t care. See:

The researchers found that university press offices were a major source of overhype: over one-third of press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.

…When a press release included actual health advice, 58 percent of the related news articles would do so too (even if the actual study did no such thing). When a press release confused correlation with causation, 81 percent of related news articles would. And when press releases made unwarranted inferences about animal studies, 86 percent of the journalistic coverage did, too.

…Unfortunately, however, this isn’t a perfect world. Many journalists are often covering science in the morning, and the courts in the afternoon. We are under heavy pressure to meet multiple deadlines every day, and some of us lack the time, sources, or background to properly vet the studies we’re reporting on.

So we rely on scientists and on press offices to guide us through research, even though, clearly, we shouldn’t.

Wait – what? The problem is the scientists and press offices? Because reporters are too overworked or unqualified to do their job properly? It sounds from the quote above that reporters are just parroting what a press release says without actually reading the source material. It sounds like reporters aren’t doing their jobs. But rather than accept the blame, they are trying to avoid the responsibility.

Unless I am mistaken, the job of a journalist is not to overlay press releases with a thin veneer of impartiality. Their job is to synthesize new information with their existing bank of expertise in order to convey to a naive audience what is or isn’t novel or important. Conversely, the job of a PR department – which derives from the incentive structure – is quite clearly to hype new research. Does anyone think that a press release from a corporation is written to be as truthful as possible, rather than putting as good of a spin on it as possible?

If the reporter knew enough about the field, they would be able to check whether or not the things they were writing were true. Where in the paper does it say this correlation exists? Is there an exaggeration? How much?

If they are unable to do that, what are they doing? Why should I read science or health journalism if they are unable to discern fact from fiction?

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8 thoughts on “Why is reporting on health and science so bad? Because the reporters can’t do their jobs.

  1. While I agree that reporters need to fact check science stories, I think it is a sad state of affairs if we just accept that a University or Institute press office should by default behave as if they were selling Oreos or insurance. I’m naive enough to believe that the Press Officers of a research, medical or educational institution should be part of the mission to discover and inform. So if the incentive structure is such that the PO’s job is “quite clearly to hype new research”, we have reached yet another sad state of affairs- put it up there somewhere between “measuring researcher achievement in grant dollars” & “employing grad students as cheap labor with no intellectual input”. I don’t think it has to be this way. And I don’t think scientists are exempt from the responsibility to care about how their Institution helps shape the public perception of their research. Again, I dont disagree with the point that the reporters do their job badly when they write on Science- in fact, the majority don’t actually ‘write’ at all, they cut and paste the PR or the first AP or Reuters wire they get their hands on.

    • Unfortunately for me, I’m a pretty cynical guy. I’d love to think that people in science (and the PR departments at institutions) are great people who REALLY CARE about everyone knowing about The Truth. But scientists are people and people respond to incentives. and the incentives suck.

      You’re right that it’s not great that it’s this way, nor does it NEED to be. But incentives need to change – and unfortunately I don’t have any great, system changing ideas. I’d love to hear them, though…

      But until it changes, journalists need to be journalists and be less gullible. Or care more. Or something. They have their jobs for a reason, I presume.

      (Also to clarify: #notalljournalists. Some are GREAT. But what seems like the majority is bringing them all down.)

  2. You have to wonder why they don’t care?
    Whom do they owe {if they do!} that they are willing to print absolute junk articles and then infer it’s the latest and greatest data to ever come out of A,B,C’s office?
    I find it to be extremely frustrating when the reporters don’t even do the minimum basic fact checking. I won’t even get started on those in “Public Health” who simply lie about every and anything to support their agenda’s even when it flies in the face of logic.
    C.B.

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  7. One problem is that our news organizations are not in the business of reporting.. The y are in the business of selling… Ads or subscriptions. What they want is excitement … And hype sells better than real science. There is little penalty to getting the story wrong. Try reading new scientist. Everything is hyped. But that is what people will pay to read. Science fiction.

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