The medical research that is reported on in the news is generally rubbish—there is rarely any mention (and certainly never any critique) of what kind of research the stories are based on or how they fit into the overall picture of health research. Important studies (meta-analyses and negative results) are not reported in favour of easy stories that proclaim ‘red meat is bad’ or ‘this vitamin is good’ and are soon replaced by other stories claiming the exact opposite.
But you probably knew that. This blog isn’t about these things—and it isn’t even about the contents of an essay I recently finished looking at the rhetoric of how health and medical research is reported. It is difficult to write engaging science newspaper stories. Scientific papers can be complicated, and focus on very different points than what journalists want to report.
There is no point in thinking about any of these things however, if the journalists aren’t even writing the articles in the first place.
In a lot of cases they aren’t.
In almost all of the newspaper coverage I looked at for my essay, the articles could have been written without ever even reading the first line of the original paper that they were based off. Instead, the newspapers based their entire reports off press releases, the first of which contained only one sentence describing any of the method behind the finding, and the second of which missed out the two very key points that the drugs they were claiming were dangerous did not include over the counter painkillers, and the effect being reported could not be seen after longer than 30 days. (Neither point was picked up in any of the newspaper coverage.)
Whole sections of these two press releases were copied and pasted into the reports, with the exact same sentences appearing in newspaper coverage from The Daily Mail to The Guardian.
A report published in 2006 based on a Cardiff study that looked at UK news and broadcast media found that 19% of all the newspaper stories they looked at were ‘verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material’. When other ‘pre-packaged’ sources of information were considered, such as wire copy, this figure increased to 60%.
Health news stories performed the worst out of any type of news looked at, however, with 37% of stories based ‘mainly or wholly on PR material’. 37%!
And this is not just the tabloids. The report looked at coverage in The Guardian, The Independent, The Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, BBC, ITV evening news bulletins, Radio 4’s World at One and the Today Programme.
If you want to find out for yourself if an article you are reading is just a regurgitated press release then you can input it into churnalism.com, a website set up so that people can become more aware that what they might expect to be serious, trustworthy journalism is often just plagiarism.
Maybe, although churnalism makes up almost half of health research stories, (and this figure is only complete copying of press releases, not even including vague re-writing and whole paragraphs copied) the rest are all original and excellent. But isn’t this result still shocking?
That even one person on one day writing one article thought that it was acceptable to copy and paste the first paragraph of a press release, sit there and change the words: ‘the scientists’ to ‘they’, ‘massive’ to ‘large’, swap the order of two clauses in one of the sentences and re-submit it as their own work is just ridiculous. This is an actual example from one of the pieces I looked at for my essay, by the way—it really is this bad.
If anyone did this at university, for even one piece of one lab report, they would be in serious trouble. Plagiarism is always stressed as the worst thing you can do when submitting work. If you submit late, you will get zero marks, but if you plagiarise you could very well be kicked off your whole degree.
So, before you can seriously ask questions of journalists like why they are covering the science they are covering, or what they think the tone of their articles should be, or what quotes are most appropriate to use, you have to ask them why they think plagiarism is acceptable.
I am not coming at this from a biased viewpoint—I used to want to be a science journalist. I want it to be a good job, where excellent articles are published. I want to enter competitions for best science reporter, but what is the point if the majority—or even any of the reality of journalism is this?
I’ve even been to many journalism workshops, one where they proudly told me that the key skill for a journalist was, hands down, integrity. It was like a tasteless joke.
Copying and pasting PR is not journalism.
So what can we do?
1) Read the original paper. Many health research papers are not difficult to read. Some are, but it’s worth a try. Some journals are also not open source, but if more people try to read the original papers only to be turned away at paywalls, then that would surely also help the case for creating more open source papers in the first place.
2) Use NHS Behind the Headlines. If you see an article on health research in a newspaper that interests or confuses you. I legitimately can’t recommend this website enough—it goes through each news story, talks about the original research and critiques it, puts it in context and gives a concise and sceptical opinion of what information is useful to take from it. It even links to both the original articles and the media coverage.
3) Use Churnalism.com to check what you are reading. There are a lot of well-written blogs and websites out there that offer alternatives to newspapers for science story news, and this website is also a good way to differentiate those that are simply performing the same churnalism as the newspapers.
The reason this blog is called hope in The Daily Mail comments, is that the one thing that really made me happy when researching my essay, amongst the awful awful reporting, were the comments under the newspaper articles.
They surprised me, because comments sections are traditionally thought to be full of hate and idiocy and anger, but what in fact I saw under the science articles I looked at, across all of the articles—from blogs aimed directly at keen science fans, to The Daily Mail itself, was a section of people who really knew a lot about, and cared about science. They really had thought about what they were reading. Maybe it was because the article was based on a potential treatment for an illness they or a family member were suffering from, or maybe it was just because they could tell the article they had just read wasn’t quite giving them the complete picture, but they really cared.
This is why churnalism is such a crime.
The people who read the newspaper articles, or the science blogs or whatever, aren’t idiots. They don’t deserve to only read something someone has copied and pasted and added a dubious quote to, something that likely isn’t accurate and certainly isn’t representative. Medical research has some of the most exciting and terrifying and interesting and worthwhile stories to be told about it.
Those stories deserve to be read and thought about and critiqued, and told to the public. Otherwise what is the point of the research at all?