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Science Tuesday: Lies on the Motel TV

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.

Filed in: Media, Science.

8 Comments

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  1. Comment by Angel:

    My husband isn’t a Scientist. He’s a Pharmacist, and even he can’t watch a news segment without becoming livid about what’s being left out or embelished especially by health care admins. and Pharmacutical companies. He can’t vent at work so I get to hear it.

    What makes him even more angry is when he does take the time to explain the truth to someone, they usually dismiss him because they have already been brainwashed by whatever they’ve heard on tv or read in the paper.

    I now know more about drug patents and political agendas and generics, etc. than I ever imagined I’d know.

    We really should pay more attention to it all. Unfortunately when things sound too complicated we’ve trained ourselves to overlook it and find the easy way out. It’s why we’re so screwed up right now.

    I’m definitely going to check out those sites. Thanks!

    June 3, 2008 @ 11:16 pm
  2. Comment by Not Afraid To Use It:

    Your post reminds me of the lecture I had to give my Swedish students every year. My “science line” students used to piss and moan over the fact that they had to write essays and learn grammar because they were science majors, dammit, not humanities majors. I told them if they did all the work, designed some fabulous new scientific design, but then could not EXPLAIN it to anyone what the hell good would that do? They agreed with me. Or at least they kept their grumbling to themselves.

    Not Afraid To Use It’s last blog post..Of Airports and Assholes

    June 3, 2008 @ 11:50 pm
  3. Comment by Angel:

    Oh absolutely, Not Afraid…, I know a couple of personal blogs written by scientists that I know I’d find extremely interesting. That is, if I could ever read a post without needing a scientific dictionary of some sort!
    Maybe I should just try harder.

    June 4, 2008 @ 12:08 am
  4. Comment by boyhowdy:

    I’m actually surprised not to see museums mentioned here as an important medium for info-flow between research and the public.

    Back before I became a classroom teacher, I did a few years of a fellowship at the Museum of Science in Boston. I was the thirteenth “man” in a twelve-person education department, hired for my background in public performance; while all others around me — primarily PhDs in various branches of the sciences — spent their time trying to make new and older science research in their respective fields clear and engaging in a variety of media and settings, my job included taking my fair share of the public demonstrations — we all did them, on each subject — and consider the structure and clarity of those demonstrations as we planned and revised them. It was great to be the “communications/media” specialist on the team; I learned some amazing science every day, and hopefully, taught my peers and the public something useful.

    These days, that same museum has a blog, participates in active weather research, and — more importantly — still continues it its core mission to help ALL the public learn what to expect from “good science”, so they will be least likely to accept media bias without critical responses.

    Would the museum model work for the research world, too? Should schools of performance, education, and media be more closely tied to schools of science? Should students be encouraged to not only write, but speak, diagram, and build exhibits about their work? Certainly, the last time most people I know had to tell the public about science, they did so as part of a multimedia science fair experiment and presentation in school, not as part of an essay. And when you ask non-scientists what they remember about science class, I daresay it’s going to be that experiment or demonstration, not the explanation.

    boyhowdy’s last blog post..Rainsongs: Folk Covers for a Stormy Night

    June 4, 2008 @ 12:36 am
  5. Comment by courtney:

    I’ve participted in many a discussion on this very topic in my journalism classes, and you’re absolutely right — medicine and other sciences are grossly oversimplified. But here’s the hard part about being a journalist: You have to be an expert in two fields. You have to be a good writer and newsgatherer, but you also have to become somewhat of an expert in your beat. Remember that the media’s job is to condense stories, which means some details are going to be left out. I understand how scientists can get frustrated with that, but they also have to remember that they’re talking to laypeople.

    That said, science can and should be covered better and more thoroughly.

    courtney’s last blog post..Hey Ladeeeez!

    June 4, 2008 @ 1:32 am
  6. Comment by maggie, dammit:

    I agree with Courtney. Journalists have to become mini-experts in every topic they write about. People don’t realize how hard it is, writing something interesting, factual, entertaining, informative, digestible, and smooth. It’s hard to do that about welding – science by its very nature makes it next to impossible. If you don’t have a scientific mind, how do you do it?

    Add in the pressures of deadlines and editors who are looking for pizazz, and the road becomes very, very tough.

    maggie, dammit’s last blog post..She’s okay.

    June 4, 2008 @ 8:01 am
  7. Comment by Bobbie:

    There’s another aspect to this issue that also is important. At some point during their education, students (and not just those in science majors) need to be taught how to be good (i.e. skeptical) consumers of science/medical news. By that I mean that they need to understand enough about how research is conducted and how data are analyzed so that they can ask appropriate questions, e.g., who funded the study; how big was the sample; what alternative explanation could there be for a result — basic stuff like that. They need to be taught the difference between the colloquial meaning and the scientific meaning for such terms as random, significant, correlation, sample, population, and so on. Without this basic kind of knowledge, it’s easy for people to be bamboozled.

    Bobbie’s last blog post..WW #36 – Rush Hour on the Reef

    June 4, 2008 @ 2:57 pm
  8. Comment by arizaphale:

    In response to Boyhowdy ( and I would be interested in CDV’s feedback on this), is the current trend for research students to present ‘posters’ a move towards this need for clear communication of an idea? My friend Ouistiti in France was always attending conferences and presenting posters. Even though this was to an audience of sciencists, perhaps it reflects the need for a different mode of communication of ideas.

    arizaphale’s last blog post..The Further Adventures of Morticia Part II

    June 6, 2008 @ 7:07 am
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