Monday, June 23, 2008

The biggish picture - or why this blog exists

Significance of science in the media

Numerous studies have shown that the media is the primary source of scientific information for the public after they leave school (Detjen, 1995; Nelkin, 1995; in an Irish context, Trench, 2007 - although he admits that this claim is difficult to test rigorously). Conrad (1999, p. 285) says 'Science journalists [are] gatekeepers for the infusion of scientific information into the public sphere'. Not alone does coverage of science issues have an effect on the lay public, it may also influence the process of science itself. Journal articles covered in The New York Times received 72.8% more citations in the science literature than control articles in the twelve months following that coverage (Phillips, Kanter, Bednarczyk & Tastad, 1991). The effect of the coverage of science issues on public attitudes and behaviour is difficult to assess, for many reasons (Gregory and Miller, 1998) but there is evidence that the media can influence people's behaviour in some instances (Miller, 1999; Grilli, Ramsay, Minozzi, 2002) - for example, coverage of the ozone controversy led to people buying fewer aerosol sprays (Nelkin, 1995) or, anecdotally, the decline in MMR vaccine take-up coincident with the most fevered reporting of its alleged link with autism (Health Protection Agency (Britain), 2005). Logan, Fears & Wilson (1997), in an examination of coverage in the late 1980s of risks from exposure to electromagnetic fields, argue this coverage influenced the implementation of regulatory statutes in several US states, despite a National Academy of Sciences review concluding that the available research was equivocal on the link between exposure and health risks. They suggest that 'journalists can inadvertently initiate a process in which legislation gets ahead of scientific evidence'.

Scientists vs journalists: an overview

The clash of cultures between science and journalism has been the subject of long debate in the science communication literature (Trench, 2007). Science is slow and precise, while journalism is fast, short, and often imprecise (Hartz and Chappell, 1997). The language used in each field is quite different. The language of science is guarded and qualified, while journalists make much use of metaphors, and are principally concerned with making their writing readable, simple, understandable and entertaining (McCall, 1988; Anton and McCourt, 1995; Nelkin, 1995).

Scientists have frequently pointed out that the media ignore both the process and the substance of science (Nelkin, 1995). The reliance of journalists on pre-packaged information such as press releases and staged events for science information has come in for a good deal of criticism (Shepherd, 1979; 1981; Nelkin, 1995; Agnell, 1996; Saari et al., 1998), as has the tendency to cover science in an episodic fashion, with an emphasis on 'breakthroughs' and 'magic bullets' (Wilkins and Patterson, 1987; Logan, 1998). The tendency of the media to cover emerging, or 'breakthrough' science as fact, despite its preliminary data being, perhaps, very tentative has also been frequently criticised (Nelkin, 1995; Logan et al., 1997; Logan et al., 2000b).


Many surveys have found that scientists' main complaint about press coverage is that it is inaccurate (Dunwoody, 1993) or incomplete (Tankard & Ryan, 1974; Pulford, 1976; Borman, 1978; Pellechia, 1997) especially when it comes to methodological details (Dunwoody, 1986; Goldstein, 1986; Pellechia, 1997). This view is not unanimous, however - Wilkes & Kravitz (1992), using interviews with first authors of science papers, found that 86% rated coverage of their studies as accurate. This echoes previous findings that accuracy ratings are higher when scientists are asked to evaluate news reports of their own work than when they are asked to evaluate science reporting in general (Dunwoody & Scott, 1982; Pulford, 1976; Tichenor, Olien, Harrison, & Donohue, 1970). However, Bubela & Caulfield (2004) in an analysis of gene discovery stories in the Canadian print media (one which was not based on interviews) found that 82% of the newspaper reports assessed contained 'no significant technical or scientific errors'.

While journalists may be largely successful in correctly reproducing the figures produced in journal articles, they are less successful in putting these figures in context. Methodological details are crucial if the results of a study are to be rendered meaningful (Tankard & Ryan, 1974). Despite this, Singer (1990), in a comparison of news reports of scientific studies in the American media with the original research articles found that 48% gave no mention of research methods at all; of those that did mention research methods, 35% gave inadequate information, and 7.1% presented methodolgical information that was simply wrong.

Another 1990 study found that it was not common practice in either to include methodological details in newspaper reports (Evans, Krippendorf, Yoon, Posluszny & Thomas, 1990); a finding replicated by Pellechia (1997) in an analysis of three prestige US newspapers over three decades. Also frequently found to be lacking in science stories are qualifiying statements or other information that would limit the findings or conclusions of the research (Dunwoody, 1986; Goldstein, 1986). Adequate information is crucial 'to meet the needs of an intelligent nonspecialist who wants to evaluate the situation being reported on' (Klaidman, 1990, p.120). In the absence of such information, it is hardly surprising that Hargreaves et al. (2003) found 79% of respondents reporting that they at least occasionally 'felt confused about scientific issues'.

Public Relations and Press Releases

A number of studies have examined the correlation between a research report being press released by a major science journal and its subsequent coverage in the press. De Semir, Ribas & Revuelta (1998), in a study of 142 newspaper articles referring to studies published in the British Medical Journal, Science, Nature and The Lancet found that 84% referred to studies that had featured in press releases. Entwistle (1995) found a similar congruence, with studies in the BMJ and The Lancet which had been press released accounting for 86% of subsequent newspaper stories. Bartlett, Sterne & Egger (2002) found an even more extreme correlation, with every article in The Times and The Sun which reported on studies from the BMJ and The Lancet having been press released.

Public relations officers and press releases are seldom quoted as sources in newspaper reports - in the Hargreaves et al. (2003) survey above they are quoted as a source in 1%, 6% and 5% of MMR, GMR and climate change stories respectively. Bubela & Caulfield (2004) found a similar reticence in citing press releases as source - only 2 articles out of 627 studied did so.

This is interesting in the context of a (possibly unrepresentative) quote from a science journalist in Hargreaves and Ferguson (2000):

“Scientists are useless, which is why there are armies of PR people in universities, research

councils and funding agencies. In fact when you are not dealing with a straight good news

science story, and instead with any kind of story with an implication for how science appears

or what it plans to do, it is almost impossible to get past the PR people and talk to a real


It is conceivable, therefore, that a story may 'quote' a scientist, but that this quote has been derived from PR personnel or a press release drawn up by the PR department of the institution the scientist works in. However, health correspondents interviewed by Entwistle (1995) said they would not rely on press releases alone as a source for their stories, and regarded access to the full text of the journal article as essential to provide them with adequate information for their story. As these claims were self-reported, they are, perhaps, questionable. Woloshin & Schwartz (2002) found that of 127 press releases issued by 7 high profile journals, only 23% noted study limitations, while industry funding was noted in only 22% of 23 studies receiving such funding. In light of this finding, it would seem essential that journalists do not rely on press releases alone.

Sources: Unpublished research, Opinion and Maverick Science

Not all newspaper coverage of medical issues is based directly on published research in academic journals. The credibility of reporting on health issues is further undermined by pre-emptive coverage of studies which have not yet been published, and of clinical trials that have not yet reached completion. Schwartz, Woolshin & Baczek (2002) studied news stories on research abstracts presented at scientific meetings, including the 12th World AIDS conference, the meeting of the American Heart Association, and that of the Radiological Society of North America. They found that the studies presented at the meetings, despite not having been published or validated, received substantial attention in the media. They also found that many of these studies had weak designs, were small, or were based on animal or laboratory studies; 25% of the abstracts which were covered in the media remained unpublished 3 years later. Pre-emptive coverage may also impact on the public's perception of the validity of the scientific method. Between 1997 and 2002 the drug Pleconaril was widely reported as being a miracle cure for the common cold, despite still being in clinical trials (Schwitzer, 2003). The drug never got past this stage and onto the market as it failed to win FDA approval. 'This kind of story...allows the public to distrust becomes easy for people to feel that scientists don't know what they're doing' (Dr. Ronald B. Turner, in Schwitzer, 2003).

A 2003 British Economic and Social Research council report on media coverage of three major science news stories - the MMR-autism controversy, climate change and cloning/genetic medical research - found that journalists quoted a scientist as the source of information for their story in 36% of cases for MMR, while the public was cited as source in 20% of cases. This contrasts with scientist as source in 58% of cases for Cloning/GMR stories and the public in just 11% of cases (Hargreaves, Lewis and Speers, 2003) This is notable: the MMR story was one with which the public could engage very directly, while GMR stories are more abstract and distant from the every day lives of the public. As Hargreaves et al note: 'the use of the public as a source in science stories would seem to be particularly important in any attempt to engage people with science stories...It is a way of signifiying that the topic is of public interest'. In neither case were the public better placed to argue the scientific merits or demerits than scientists, but because of the public's perceived engagement in the MMR controversy, their opinions were given greater parity with scientific opinion than in the case of GMR.

The appeal to the public for information is indicative of the media's strategy of balancing views in controversial stories. While this is a central journalistic value (see e.g. Westersthahl's 1983 model of objectivity in journalism which has balance as a core element), its effect in this controversy 'tended merely to indicate that there were two competing bodies of evidence rather than offer[ing] more substantive evaluations of the case for or against a link [between MMR and autism]' (Hargreaves et al., p. 23). Going beyond the problems with using this balanced 'political model' (Check, 1987) of reporting, even defining the boundaries of legitimate science can be problematic, as in the case of 'maverick' science (Dearing, 1995) - wherein an individual scientist may propose an unorthodox theory which receives wide coverage despite having a brittle or non-existent evidence base. Reporters seldom ask how sources know what they know, or what evidence this knowledge is based on (Tavris, 1986).


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1 comment:

Alex said...

thanks for the summary, useful