We all are familiar with the headlines:
“SCIENTISTS SAY BROCCOLI CURES CANCER????”
We all also know that pop-science articles are, functionally, useless. Sometimes its editors manipulating article titles to make them more ‘catchy’, sometimes journalists trying to stir up controversy, sometimes its scientists and PR departments trying to oversell interesting (sometimes not so interesting) research.
Average Joes and Janes cant peruse a science/heath/technology section and be confident in what they are reading.
Does eating broccoli really cure cancer? Does eating broccoli prevent cancer? Or is it only a pharmacologic dose of a chemical found in broccoli? Do over-the-counter versions work too? Or does it have to be administered IV in a hospital? What kinds of cancer does it work on? What kinds of people were in the study? How old were they? Where were they from? What was their race? Gender?
And then there is the bane of all bloggers trying to cover a story that breaks in pop-media– no links to the original article. Certainly I dont expect all the info from a paper to be crammed into a pop-sci article, but why the hell cant journalists include a link to the research they are covering?? The title of the paper? The journal it is published in?
Well something interesting has been born in the UK–
Youall remember the phone hacking scandal in the UK a while back? Some journalists hacked into a missing little girls cell phone to try to dig up stories or something, and the cell phone activity got her family all excited that she might not be dead. Absolutely cruel, and apparently the hacking was not orchestrated by some tabloid, but by major mainstream news organizations. They had been doing it to celebrities, royals, family members of killed military personnel, terrorist victims (7/7, 9/11), disgusting.
So the government launched the Leveson Inquiry.
What does this have to do with science journalism?
Leveson was investigating ethics in journalism. This includes science journalism, which plays no small part in creating and festering train-wrecks like anti-vax BS, and all the stuff we know and ‘love’ about pop science journalism like ‘cures’ and ‘miracles’ and whatnot.
• State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
• Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
• When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
• Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time frame for any new treatment or technology.
• On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – ie if “cupcakes double cancer risk” state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
• Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
• If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
• Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
• Remember patients: don’t call something a “cure” that is not a cure.
• Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.
Each one of those is a gem!! Could you imagine??? Could you imagine if journalists followed this simple list of guidelines when they wrote pop-sci articles??? I have no idea how to spearhead anything like this in the US media, but change starts at home– I already try to do those things myself, but I will make a point of doing it all better in the future.