09 June 2006

Medical journalism and meetings of the mindless

As someone who believes that science journalists spend too much time following press releases and papers, and that they should attend research conferences for real stories, I naturally leapt on a press release proclaiming Important study facts often missing in media reports about medical research. This goes with a paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia which, the release tells us, warns that "News stories about medical research, often based on initial findings presented at professional conferences, frequently omit basic facts about the study and fail to highlight important limitations".

Steven Woloshin and Lisa M Schwartz of the "VA Outcomes Group" at Dartmouth Medical School wrote the paper. Their bottom line is that because of the journalists' failure to hedge their bets "the public may be misled about the validity and relevance of the science presented".

There's any number of comments that a media observer could make about this. First there is the fact that there just isn't room to go into all of the fine details in a short newspaper story. Then there is the fact that the people who present the papers hardly shout from the rooftops about the possibility that their findings may be a load of tosh.

You also have to wonder what world these people inhabit. For example, they assert that "there are many anecdotal complaints about how well the media cover scientific meetings". Really? Most scientists of my acquaintance, and there are some, reckon that the media do a poor job of covering meetings other than those at which there are serried ranks of PR folks pushing their researchers into the limelight.

Here is what the researchers in this project found:

"Basic study facts were often missing. About a third of reports failed to mention study size, and 53% did not mention study design or were so ambiguous that expert readers could not determine the design with any certainty.

"Forty per cent of stories did not quantify the main result. Twenty-one per cent quantified the main result, but used only relative change statistics without a base rate — a format known to exaggerate the perceived magnitude of findings."

In other words, these people seem to want newspaper reports to be as thorough as scientific papers in reporting the details of a conference presentation. Tell that to the news desk, an animal that is probably unknown to Woloshin and Schwartz.

Actually, it would seem that they just do not want us to get into this territory. "The most direct way to improve the media coverage of scientific meetings," they say, "would be to have less of it."

This is because "Work presented at scientific meetings is generally not ready for public consumption: results change, fatal problems emerge, and hypotheses fail to pan out."

Woloshin and Schwartz don't have much idea of how the media works. For example, they admit that their study "has two limitations". The first is that they looked at just five meetings. They reject this as an issue on the grounds that "these are extremely prominent meetings and the coverage appeared in well known media outlets".

That's just the problem. They looked at events where the media machine operates in top gear. They just might find that the reporters who go to conferences that don't come with this hype do a better job.

Another point is that this is all very patronising. While the public does not know all of the intricacies of how science works, there are so many reports of early medical research that you have to be wilfully ignorant to believe that a newspaper report of a conference is a guarantee that miracle cures will appear the day after tomorrow.

Yes, medical journalists should get their facts right, but every story cannot offer a potted introduction to how science works.

My own complaint about a lot of medical reporting is that it is the same boring stuff churned out again and again. It gets into print only because, as Woloshin and Schwartz admit, "the public has a strong appetite for medical news –‚ particularly about new, 'breakthrough' treatments and technologies". And that is down to the medics trying to con the world into believing that they can solve the world's health problems, if only we would throw more money at them. Tell them to tone down their conference papers before fingering the media for any alleged shortcomings.

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