Ever read a science- related story in the media and thought that it had been exaggerated or misreported? Since the general public rely on the media to keep them informed, these misleading messages can be very damaging, especially when dealing with complex health issues. A famous example is the controversy regarding the measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Introduced in 1988, the vaccine was a huge success and ended the endemic transmission of measles. However 10 years after being introduced, a research paper in the Lancet, although later revealed to be severely flawed and with ulterior motives, linked the vaccine with autism. Once sensationalised by the media this paper resulted in a huge public health scare. Many parents then opted against their children being vaccinated, and by 2007 the transmission of measles was re-established. Examples like this give a good indication of how effective the media is as a link between scientific research and the general public, and hence how harmful misreporting of science can be. In November 2014 I attended a Standing up for Science media workshop. The workshop, composed of panellists, group work and discussions, focussed on how we, as scientists, can prevent the public from being badly informed on matters which are perhaps extremely important to them. The panels were split into three sections and taught us about the process by which science is taken into the media and the factors which can result in it being incorrectly portrayed; including the perspectives of scientists, journalists and media relations officers. Victoria Murphy, from Sense About Science (SAS), and Lindsey Robinson, the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) representative, concluded the workshop by informing us of how SAS can help us to stand up to the media if we feel we should. Some of the information from SAS can be accessed through their website.
It is very important that scientists speak out when they see misleading reports in the media. Although inexcusable, it could be argued that the MMR vaccine scare was a rare and extreme case. However, bad reporting of science not only results in events like this, but cumulatively the everyday exposure to misleading and perhaps over-glorified information, can gradually destroy public trust in scientific research. A recent example is one from The Express stating that ‘eating a potato salad with steak can cancel out the cancer risk from red meat’. Articles like these can lead to bad public health choices. A conversation a few days ago with my grandma demonstrated this perfectly. Very sharp and well informed, she has come to the conclusion, perhaps representative of many of the public, that ‘nowadays everything can give you disease and everything can reduce it’ and ‘you can’t trust anything they say’. She is now extremely reluctant to take the daily statins prescribed by her doctor to lower her cardiovascular risk.
The whole process of scientific research and translation into the media can be suggested to tend toward positive bias. Researchers are biased towards finding positive results, the press releases emphasise these positive results, which are then sensationalised by media reporters. The end result is that a false impression may be given which can mislead not only the general public but also medical professionals and academics. With this in mind, is it actually the journalists’ fault or can the scientists be to blame too? Well, in a study by Sumner and colleagues it was demonstrated that much of the exaggeration of health research in the media was actually already present in the press release sent out by the academic institution. This report highlighted three main ways by which an academic paper or press release can be misleading. These were:
- giving direct advice from a study to readers to change their behaviour,
- inferring conclusions based on animal or cell research directly to humans,
- making causal statements based on correlation results.
This last point is based on the fact that although two factors (for example a disease and a particular compound found in the body) may correlate, we cannot be sure which of the two factors is influencing the other, if there is a third factor linking the two, or if it is just a coincidence. Therefore, as scientists we should not make the assumption when reporting our results. In addition to this, based on the other two points we should only give advice when absolutely certain, and should make clear that any research carried out in vitro or in animal studies, may not be translatable to humans. In reality, fewer than 10% of non-human investigations are estimated to be successful after translation to human clinical use.
So in order to prevent our work being reported badly, it is our responsibility as scientists to ensure that we do not mislead, or give false impressions which can be taken in the wrong way by the media. However if we do see that science has been reported badly, as it often is, then we can do something about this, as the Sense About Science workshop inspires us to do. Whether you are passionate about speaking out, or alternatively if you are interested in becoming involved with the media in the future, I really recommend the workshop.