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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Reporting on health: science journalism needs veracity

It was not the best day for meat lovers. Front-page headlines Oct. 26 by every news outlet that day contained two words: meat and cancer.

Scientific evidences show that processed meats, like sausages and bacon, can cause cancer. And, red meat meat in general is also probably carcinogenic, according to a study conducted by the cancer research branch of the World Health Organization.

And in the first several lines of their stories about this research, few journalists and news editors failed to mention that processed meats were put into the same category of carcinogen with tobacco.

But as many critics pointed out, the narrative that hot dogs are as harmful as cigarettes is misleading. While regular consumption of processed meats can raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent according to the WHO report, heavy smokers are far more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers, blogger Zach Supalla wrote.

In an additional document, WHO also clarifies that the categorization of carcinogens is based on the sufficiency of evidence instead of the level of risk, explicitly stating that smoking and eating processed meat are not equally dangerous.

Covering science: not an easy task

The need to simplify scientific facts for readers sometimes conflicts with the complex nature of science, said Ron Seely, a long-time science journalist now working and teaching at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Other times over-simplistic narratives sneak their way to news coverage solely because of the lack of space on the publication or the disconnections along the editing process, Seely said.

Statements out of context can misinform readers especially when the messages are conveying risks related to people’s daily life, Seely added, emphasizing the dicey aspect of health reporting.

A group of researchers have been developing algorithmic tools for science journalists to contextualize their stories. Science Surveyor, a project led by Columbia and Stanford scholars, aims at helping journalists with tight deadlines sort out academic literature for the covered issue.

People may not understand that a particular study is “just a piece along the way” in scientific investigation, Marguerite Holloway, a developer of the Science Surveyor from the Columbia Journalism School, said in an interview conducted by the school in 2009.

Journalists should not over-sell certain scientific findings, Holloway said.

The growing complexity and specialization of science makes it difficult for journalists to keep up with the changes, Seely said.

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Responsible reporting: people rely on you

To provide journalists with written references, WHO ensures that all the information about its research is available on its website, WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl said in an email.

Organizations like WHO need journalists to disseminate health information to the public in layman language, Hartl said.

Meanwhile, Hartl said he expected journalists covering health issues to at least have some background knowledge. It is more helpful for efficient communication between WHO and the public if the journalist is specialized in health reporting, Hartl said.

But this may not be the situation for the news industry nowadays, with shrinking resources dedicated to science reporting, Seely said.

News outlets have been sending less experienced general assignment reporters to cover life science story, given the abundance of press releases and press conferences by research institutes, Seely said.

Seely worried that this underestimate of the difficulty of science reporting will further hinder critical investigations, as the well established public relations sectors of health institutions and government agencies have already effectively controlled the information flow.

In many cases the exaggeration in media coverage comes directly from the research institutes’ press releases, which use sensational statements to catch media attention, Ben Goldacre, a London-based medical researcher, pointed out in a BMJ editorial.

Even reputable news outlets like the New York Times can make mistakes in health coverage, according to an article by David Freedman of the Columbia Journalism Review. Freedman thought that two Times articles about obesity, one claiming that maintaining weight loss is hardly possible and another that high-fat diets help weight loss, are fallacious and potentially encouraging bad decisions.

Seely’s suggested science reporters ask when they do not know. When interviewing experts, do not hesitate to let them repeat or explain for you and also for your audience.

“Remember that people are making decisions based on your reporting.” Seely said.

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