Posts Tagged media

Hyperbole from university press offices Grant Jacobs Dec 11


A newly-released study suggests university press releases are a key source of hyperbole seen in science stories in media, concluding that -

Exaggeration in news is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases. Improving the accuracy of academic press releases could represent a key opportunity for reducing misleading health related news.

The study is now available to read* (and fortunately is open access) and is accompanied by an editorial by Ben Goldacre. Goldacre’s editorial points to several other studies of press releases, including another study published by the BMJ.

There is widespread commentary on this research in science communication circles (with no doubt more in coming days), including:

One story relates how the authors of the research group came to study press releases as a consequence of a ‘media circus’ surrounding one of their own articles in Science and health news hype: where does it come from? (The Guardian, UK) -

Unfortunately, we made the novice mistake of issuing the press release about our research during the riots, prompting a media circus.

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Editors, producers, journalists: drop the false balance Grant Jacobs Mar 08


If the ‘alternative’ viewpoint isn’t sound, there is nothing to report on the alternative viewpoint.

For some things there are no sound alternative viewpoints.

There seems to be a number of media personnel who feel obliged to offer ‘another’ viewpoint, as if everything were decided by opinion.

It is, at best, lame journalism to rope in some unorthodox opinion to fill in some imaginary requirement that an alternative viewpoint be offered.

Alternative views make sense for things defined entirely by opinion: a dress at the Oscars, the colours an automobile manufacturer choose for it’s cars – and so on.

Scientific things are determined by evidence, not opinion.

There can be alternative viewpoints in science for issues that have yet to be settled. In that case it ought to be noted that the material is still under open investigation: the ‘state of play’ of the science should be presented.[1] It would be quite misleading, though, to place unsound alternative viewpoints alongside science that is well-resolved. In that case, the alternative views incorrectly imply the science is unresolved, leaving the piece misrepresenting the subject matter.

Similarly, if views that are not sound are presented alongside sources that are sound, the audience may take away that the ‘alternative’ view has a creditability that they do not.

I’ve been reminded of this by Radio New Zealand, who usually do a good job,[2] offering Hilary Butler as a counterpoint to information on vaccines by Immunisation Advisory Centre immunisation research director Helen Petousis-Harris.

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Dear journalists and editors, (again) Grant Jacobs Nov 14


Some time ago I wrote to you over your advocating unsound treatments in reporting fund-raising efforts.

I now find myself writing again on much the same issue, this time regards your advocating unsound services. The issues are so similar I find myself drawing on my earlier words.

Please, when you decide to ‘advocate’ for a service, check that it is sound.

Articles about services offering hope of treating illness no doubt sell copy, but with that comes responsibility.

These articles, with their details of how to contact the service provider at the bottom, effectively advocate the service to the reader.

Sure, you could argue whether the treatment is sound is for the reader to judge before giving them their money – but wouldn’t that be newspapers shirking their moral responsibilities?

If you put down details of the service in the article you’re effectively putting your weight behind it.

Editors, like most people, will be aware that articles in the press carry some weight of creditability, rightly or wrongly. There will be an expectation among many that the media has checked ‘the facts’.[1]

It seems to me either that this checking should done, and done properly, or the advocacy dropped.

My brief missive here follows from an article espousing the services of an iridologist published yesterday in the New Zealand Herald that was brought to my attention by my colleagues.[2]

Even the briefest of background research would have revealed that iridology is nonsense. Quaint, well-meaning nonsense, perhaps, but nonsense nevertheless.

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What would you have as a replacement for ‘Close Up’? Grant Jacobs Sep 27


There’s talk that long-running New Zealand current affairs program Close Up is to close up.* Cease to be, that is.

On sciblogs, we talk about what we’d like to see media do a fair bit. Naturally our concerns mostly relate to science stories but these issues apply more widely, too.

What would readers like to see in a replacement of Close Up? (Let’s assume it’ll be news, rather than be replaced by reality TV or what-have-you.)

Here’s a short selection from the comments at Stuff. (I’m not endorsing these! Many comments there focus on the host; my including these examples is for the remarks on technique, not the man.)

Max: “Would it be that hard to have a serious current affairs show that doesn’t just go for sensationalist stories?”

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Media reporting of subsequent findings Grant Jacobs Sep 14


You know that thing where a media report splashes out about some new ‘discovery’ as if it’s the definitive thing, then a few months later when new research calls it into question there’s little more than a ripple or, more often than not, silence?

A group of French scientists decided to look into how media portrayed a topic as it developed, using ADHD as their case example, setting out to test if media reported later developments in a topic and if they did, did they report the context of the later research findings.[2] (Readers could tackle the paper for themselves—it’s not too hard to follow[1].)

One element to meaningful reporting of a topic, to my mind, is to report the ‘state of play’ of the topic. This should be particularly true for initial reports. Initial findings are tentative, an argument for a case put forward to their scientific community peer for consideration. How well did the media in their case examples do?

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Science blogging in the New Zealand media Grant Jacobs Mar 20


My article for today is over at Nature’s Soapbox Science.

During a recent Royal Institution discussion that I was following on-line via twitter Fiona Fox, head of the UK Science Media Centre (SMC), was reported as saying that ’blogs are fantastic but no journalists goes to them to look for full stories — must be realistic’. I thought that this wasn’t the experience of those writing here at the Sciblogs and suggested as much in reply.

Lou Woodley, on-line editor for Nature’s community forum and blogs and who was part of our on-line conversation, invited me to write a guest blog expanding on this. With the help of others writing here (huge thanks!), I have outlined some of the interactions with the New Zealand media we have experienced and offered a few thoughts as to why we experience this interaction.

A selection of articles on science communication at Code for life:

Communicating complex and post-normal science to the policy maker and the public — lessons from New Zealand

What should be taught in science communication courses?

When the abstract or conclusions aren’t accurate or enough

Of use of the active voice by scientists

Media thought: Ask what is known, not the expert’s opinion

Dear journalists and editors, Grant Jacobs Mar 02


Please, when you decide to ‘advocate’ for a family’s fund raising efforts towards treatment for their sick child, parent or sibling*, check what the money is being used for is sound.

Articles about families raising funds in the hope of curing a seriously ill child* no doubt sell copy, but with that comes responsibility.

These articles, with their details of how to support the appeal at the bottom, effectively advocate the appeal to the reader.

Sure, you could say whether the treatment is sound is for the reader to judge before putting their money towards the appeal – but wouldn’t that be newspapers shirking their moral responsibilities?

If you put down details of the appeal in the article you’re effectively putting your weight behind it.

Editors, like most people, will be aware that articles in the press carry some weight of creditability, rightly or wrongly. There will be an expectation among many that the media has checked ‘the facts’.**

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Vitamin C as cancer treatment – Sir Paul Callaghan reviews his trial Grant Jacobs Jan 20


In New Zealand we received news some time ago that well-respected physicist Paul Callaghan was trying vitamin C therapy for his cancer. Paul Callaghan is also well-known for his science communication efforts.

News today is that he has reviewed his trial of this treatment. He has been reported as saying he found ’absolutely no evidence’ it worked.

Kate Newton’s article is worth reading – it’s a nice example of clear journalism to my mind. Readers should note the scientific approach taken, measuring the outcome of the treatment, e.g. ’tracking its effectiveness through a blood test for protein carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which indicates cancer levels.’

Of this self-study he is quoted: ’I have, as a result, learned enough to say that there is absolutely no evidence of any beneficial effect of high-dose intravenous vitamin C in my case.’

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Initial reports are not a done deal Grant Jacobs Jan 11


In offering his opinion on a recent research paper reporting that plant micro-RNAs can be found in human blood, Larry Moran closes ’How do you convey the idea that all scientific results are preliminary until they have been confirmed by others?’

I’ve previously written on a related issue, conveying the state of play in media reports of scientific work.

Scientific reports are an argument for a case, the starting point of a line of thinking for the wider scientific community, not the end point. The end point is when, after much cross-examination of the ideas presented in the initial report and subsequent work, the scientific community as a whole reaches a general consensus that the ideas presented are indeed the best current model for the particular thing under study.*

One reason some writers might choose to use definitive (uncritical) statements when writing about scientific reports for articles meant for a wide audience is concern over losing their readers’ (or editors’) interest.

Looked at this way, we can consider Larry’s question as more just raising the preliminary nature of new work, but how this might be best presented in writing an article for a wide audience.

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Science reporting – accuracy does not matter? Grant Jacobs Aug 17


I’m joining Peter Griffin in voicing surprise and dismay at the New Zealand Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) response to a complaint over a factual error–acknowledged by the broadcaster as wrong–as immaterial in reporting a science item. Peter has the full story; I’m not going to repeat it here. Readers will also want to read media commentator Brian Edward’s article and the comments in response to it.

What I’d like to do is quickly look at the BSA ruling, which I find instructive.

The news item reported a 10 year-old Canadian girl’s discovery of a supernova approximately 240 million light years away as being only 240 light years away. The BSA notes that TVNZ accepted their error but also rejected it as unimportant in the context of the story,

Furthermore, we consider that Mr McDonald’s complaint was dealt with adequately and appropriately by the broadcaster, which accepted that the figure was incorrect, but explained that it was not material to the item.

The key point is that the broadcaster rejects it as not important, arguing that they were presenting a general human interest event – but even there they describe it terms of a science achievement: ’[…] the item, which focused on the discovery of the supernova by a 10-year-old girl.’

The broadcaster’s response feels a little disingenuous to me. Their story features an achievement but they have, in part, inaccurately represented the achievement. (One thing that would be useful is some idea of how difficult, or not, it is to observe an event that far away using modest amateur equipment.)

A bigger problem is lurking – general standards of reporting science news, and what is acceptable.

Further down in the BSA ruling this line complains that Mr McDonald is ‘asking for too much’ -

Mr McDonald wishes to apply standards of scientific or mathematical accuracy where these are not required.

Let me see if I understand this.

The broadcaster reports a science event, but wishes to not be held to the standards expected of a science event? More fully, when their error is pointed out, they argue that inaccuracy is ‘immaterial’, and the BSA supports this?

If you are to report on a science event, the basic facts have to be accurate, surely? Isn’t that part of the territory? Read the rest of this entry »

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