Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Is science journalism a danger to public health?

I love Twitter. About a month ago I clicked on a tweet to discover this: www.badscience.net/2009/07/steve-connor-is-getting-eggy/

In brief: A month ago a mud-slinging match started between Steve Connor, science editor at the Indy, and Ben Goldacre. On his blog, badscience.net, Goldacre wrote: “mainstream media's science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly.” Connor responded in an Indy column saying critics did not understand the time and money constraints of the mainstream media. He tells me at the Indy the past year has seen a 30 percent cut in newspaper income and a third of journalists have lost their jobs because of the recession.

It’s true some health stories are misleading and this is an extremely serious business. A well-publicised case wrongly linked MMR and autism, the product of decades’ tangled mess of analysis and reporting by lifestyle and other non-specialist journalists based on the work of a scientist with a ton of vested interests (Andrew Wakefield). Throw in a dash of hysteria via lobby groups of concerned parents and it becomes the most vexed issue of science journalism to date. Serious business, as increasing numbers of children are contracting measles and mumps. Read more here

Alok Jha, science correspondent at the Guardian, thinks that in his chapter on MMR in Bad Science, Goldacre makes a mistake lumping science journalists with lifestyle journalists that misinterpreted the scientific evidence. Jha says:

I think Ben’s a bit disingenuous, because he writes ‘science journalist’, and then when you read what he writes he doesn’t talk about science journalists. That’s a slight issue, and he’s admitted that, but I think he uses it so that it’s polemic. So, I don’t use his arguments massively seriously.

Rowan Hooper, news editor at Newscientist.com, says: “Bad science [journalism] can damage your health – but remember – so can bad doctors. If anyone knows a doctor who is good at analysing statistics, perhaps one who is also a good writer, we might ask him to try and assess the deaths that can be attributed to poor science reporting and those attributable to poor medical practice.

Enough of this verbal sparring, boys – the biggest problem facing science journalism’s credibility is churnalism, the “cut and paste” recycling of press agency and PR copy into stories. Hooper says: "You might not have taken the trouble to verify things with independent experts and the danger is you have taken them at their word when it may well require extra reporting." This can result in inaccuracies and “loony claims about cancer”, for example. In Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News, he blames pharma PR-led stories on fabricated disorders, such as female sexual dysfunction (my example) or  “social anxiety disorder – otherwise known as shyness”.

However, despite errors and bloopers by editors and journalists that encourage a skepticism towards science journalism – which might be dangerous if readers ignore stories when they do provide vital and accurate information – I’d argue science journalism is not a completely “broken” profession.

MSM’s treatment of stem cell research is something that Jha states as an example of “critical friend” science journalism done good: “Members of the science journalism community took the issue on board and analysed the effects and talked to audiences about why this is important.” The result: new legislation passed through government to allow the creation of hybrid embryos, for example, and therefore possible future advances to public health.

Also, MMR might actually have had, in some ways, a positive influence on subsequent health coverage in the media, for example SARS, or depending on which camp you sit in H1N1 (some good and informative, some shown to be overblown in the context of ordinary flu stats). There does seem to me to be an air of not wanting to fuck up in the same way again. Ever. Jha puts that down to newspaper editors realising that they need people on their staff that can be responsible to sort out complex issues.

Jha says he doesn’t know many scientists in UK who complain about science coverage – bar one or two. Evidence for this is a paper published in Science by a UCL researcher (Steve Miller) who interviewed 1,000 stem cell scientists to see what they felt about stem cell coverage in the media, and virtually all of them were happy with it.



  1. hi rowan hooper

    you'd like to compare the number of deaths from bad doctors to the number of deaths from bad journalism.

    here is the issue: doctors are, very correctly, constantly writing about their own failings, in public, in private, at conferences, at journal club, at grand round, in academic papers, and so on. doctors are very aware that what they do can be dangerous and so they are highly critical of the failings in their own ideas and practises, and those of others. this is systemic, it is not about individuals.

    journalists meanwhile have become so problematic because they do not have critical self appraisal locked down at the core of their discipline. they do not criticise the health risks posed by their own activities, this is why it has been left to outsiders such as me.

    when others do raise criticisms journalists decline to engage with the issues, and resort to "don't talk about that, talk about this", as you do above.

    or you resort to ad hominem, as steve connor from the independent memorably did:


    this failure to engage sensibly with well meant, serious criticism is why your profession has become so problematic, but it is also why people have slowly ceased to take you seriously. at a time when paid-for print is in such trouble it seems odd to stick your heads in the sand.

    ben goldacre

  2. Ah, sorry for the omission. This was the second of a series of four blog posts. Rowan is the online news editor of New Scientist.

  3. Hello Ben,

    The idea that doctors are highly critical of the failings in their own ideas and practises is fantastical.

    The WHO recommended this simple checklist http://www.npsa.nhs.uk/nrls/alerts-and-directives/alerts/safer-surgery-alert/ be used prior to surgery, finding that it could cut deaths by 40%. Even in rich countries, there are serious gaps in teamwork and safety practices, the report found (published in the New England Journal of Medicine).

    The BBC reported here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7825780.stm that in 2007, 129,419 surgical incidents were reported to the National Patient Safety Agency. Over 1,000 resulted in severe harm and 271 led to the death of the patient.

    Yet the WHO checklist (already in use in Scotland) will not be in use in England and Wales until February 2010. Why not? Because surgeons voted against its introduction.

    Rowan Hooper

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  5. Hi Ben, hi Rowan, hi everyone,

    Wow, this is getting a bit heated, how exciting.

    To Ben, I'd say this: I see your point. The journalistic profession is far from flawless, as I highlight in my blog, and it's idea of self-regulation, the PCC, is a bit of a joke.

    But you really stray from replying to the argument that Rowan is making with your trumpeting of the medical profession's self-regulation. Really, who do you think is more damaging to the public health, bad journalism or bad medical care? It's a fair enough question. In an ideal world, neither would be bad at all, so people could be left to damage their health with no help from either, but it's surely about putting your criticisms about public health in a broader context. I would have thought this would be something you would be in favour of?

    Let's not make this personal about journalists or doctors in particular - as you say resorting to ad hominem - but wait a minute, isn't part of your argument about how rubbish journalists are an ad hominem attack on Steve Connor? I don't care who started it - ad hominem attacks (even responding to ad hominem) are inadmissible.

    Rowan: I thank you for keeping a cool head on your shoulders and responding to the matter at hand, that you raised in my original blogpost, and providing some interesting facts and figures to support your argument. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there are any figures or surveys available to provide more information about the media's role in damaging public health. Does any one know of any such information? We can't really compare the two otherwise.

    Also, one last point: it would be interesting to compare not only the harm that journalism and medics do for public health but also to measure the benefits, on some kind of a sliding scale.

    Many thanks to both of you for your feedback.


  6. hi rowan

    bad medicine is bad

    bad journalism is bad

    doctors and academics try to do something about the problems in medicine, they develop and implement things like the protocol you describe above. you think it's bad that people will not implement this protocol fast enough. i agree, it would be good if improvements like this could be made faster.

    you flatly refuse to discuss the problems with bad science and health journalism. fair enough.

    ben goldacre

  7. Hey Ben,

    I think that I slightly misrepresented the totality of Rowan's viewpoint, which is rather more complex than what you have read above. He is broadly speaking on your side about science journalism. Same as every one else I've spoken to for this blog piece.


  8. Really helpful post, thanks :)