We’ve written on a number of occasions here (and elsewhere) about the importance of good, reliable science journalism. Now, writing in his Bad Science column in The Guardian, Ben Goldacre points to an extremely concrete reason, with important ramifications for society, to encourage quality science writing.
There are all kinds of reasons to be concerned about and interested in science journalism. Are important issues getting the right amount of coverage? Is there a reasonable balance to the stories? Do journalists rely too much on the opinions of a few friendly experts, or do they seek out diverse expert views? Do university press releases drive coverage rather than inform it? Do funding agencies pay to much attention to research and authors who receive press coverage? I could go on and on. Some of these issues are mostly of interest to academics, but to some extent they all directly affect not only the public’s understanding of current scientific progress, but also their ability to make an informed decision to support (or not support) future scientific endeavors.
But there is another, more direct reason to hope for strong coverage of science. Goldacre reports on several studies showing that when it comes to health issues, the public pays a remarkable amount of attention to press coverage of a given question. Among other things, he notes that
A 2005 study in the Medical Journal of Australia looked at the impact of Kylie Minogue’s breasts on mammogram bookings. They rose by 40% during the two-week publicity peak, and six weeks later they were still up by a third. The increase among previously unscreened women in the 40-69 year age group was 101%. These surges were unprecedented.
…A systematic review from the Cochrane Collaboration found five studies looking at the use of specific health interventions before and after media coverage of specific stories, and each found that favourable publicity was associated with greater use, and unfavourable with lower.
One might think that this is an extremely positive thing, since to a large extent the public seems to trust scientific results, and holds science is high regard. However, the main point of Goldacre’s column is to discuss a recent analysis, by former journalist Gary Schwitzer, of 500 mainstream media health articles from the US.
The results were dismal. Only 35% of stories were rated satisfactory for whether the journalist had “discussed the study methodology and the quality of the evidence”: because in the media, as you will have noticed, science is about absolute truth statements from arbitrary authority figures in white coats, rather than clear descriptions of studies and the reasons why people draw conclusions from them.
Only 28% adequately covered benefits, and only 33% adequately covered harms. Articles routinely failed to give any useful quantitative information in absolute terms, preferring unhelpful eye-catchers like “50% higher” instead.
So it turns out that what the public really trusts is whatever journalists tell them about science. This is why it is so important to do everything we can to support good science journalism, and to resist the temptation to contribute to poor efforts by overly sensationalizing our own work when speaking to journalists about it.
But it isn’t easy, given the juicy data the article also contains about how New York Times coverage skews citations!