Written on June 3, 2008
In last week’s lively Science Tuesday comment stream, Matthew pointed out that one of the things that many scientists struggle with is communicating with the public. I think that he’s dead on target. Scientists, particularly academic scientists, don’t do themselves any favors by not learning how to talk to the average Joe or Jane. I suspect that a lot of academics fall into the trap of believing that it is their job to do the research and someone elses, like the media, to explain it to the masses. In an ideal world – where we have a thoughtful, critical and industrious mainstream media – that is a fair assumption. Maybe the problem is that scientists don’t come out of their ivory tower often enough to watch FoxNuz or read USA Today and to conclude that we do not live in an ideal world.
A paper published in the latest issue of PLoS Medicine quantifies what most of us already know – that U.S. journalists are doing a poor job of accurately reporting on science, particularly in the field of medicine. The PLoS study was carried out by Gary Schwitzer, a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota. Schwitzer established HealthNewsReview.org, a website that publishes reviews of medical new stories, two years ago based on similar sites in Australia and Canada. The study that he’s published in PLoS reports the results of two years of analysis of the mainstream media’s treatment of health news. Schwitzer’s group monitors science news by the biggest newspapers in the U.S. and watch the morning and evening news programs of the three major networks on a daily basis. (If you think you’re job sucks, imagine if you had to watch all three morning shows every single day. Good god.) The researchers then assign a rating based on how well the story covers a number of criteria.
Even without Fox to skew the stats, the results are shocking yet unsurprising. Schwitzer claims that 62 – 77% of stories failed to adequately address costs, harms, benefits, the quality of the evidence and the existence of other options when covering health care products or procedures. The issue that was ignored most often by the media was cost of products and procedures. In a country in which 16% of the GDP is spent on health care, only one quarter of new stories addressed the minor issue of the cost of the technique they were discussing. Well done. Less than a third of news stories addressed issues such as the benefits or harms of products or the quality of the evidence reported by the primary source. For me, however, the most disturbing statistics were that nearly 40% of news reports failed to reveal that one of the “experts” that were cited had a financial tie to the product being discussed and 35% of stories did not go beyond parroting a news release from the manufacturer of the product.
Schwitzer’s conclusions are basically that he’s doing good work – and that is true. Take a look at his site – the “0 Star Stories” are particularly fun. Schwitzer places the bulk of the blame on the news outlets themselves rather than the journalists. He recognizes that in the era of media consolidation many newsrooms have eliminated trained science journalists. He urges the reader to check out his site for the best health care news analysis.
The problem is that not very many people know about Schwitzer’s site. I frequently rant about how shabby and corrupt the mainstream media has become and am a scientist and I hadn’t heard of it. The problem is that most people still get their science news from the mainstream media and they are being misled most of the time. With the continued consolidiation of media outlets, most of whom are owned by conglomerates who also have interests in pharmaceuitical companies, it’s not outlandish to believe that this is intentional. I know that I’m preaching to the choir – if you’re reading a blog then you’ve already discovered the new media. But if you’re still getting your science news from the Today Show then the best case scenario is that you’re not getting all the facts. The worst case scenario is that you’re being lied to. Here are links to a few good “new media” alternatives:
Also check out some of the sites on my “Science” blogroll.