Inaccurate representation of results in the media

From The Embassy of Good Science

Inaccurate representation of results in the media

What is this about?

The media plays a significant role in presenting research findings to the public. However, since the results and conclusions of scientific studies are not always easy to understand, errors in their reporting can easily arise. The inaccurate representation of scientific results has been referred to as “scienceploitation” [1].

  1. The Conversation. How social media can distort and misinform when communicating science. 2016 June 30. [cited 2020 July 9]. Available from: https://theconversation.com/how-social-media-can-distort-and-misinform-when-communicating-science-59044.

Why is this important?

The media is the most powerful tool for spreading new information about scientific studies. Therefore, researchers and academic institutions place a strong emphasis on communicating research findings to the media [1]. However, sometimes the media distort research findings, which results in the spreading of misinformation [2]. Frequent use of oversimplified language, exaggeration, sensationalist reporting and the avoidance of complex issues are some of the main reasons for the misrepresentation of researching findings by the media [2][1][3]. Furthermore, when follow-up studies undermine the results and conclusions of the initial study, the media usually does not correct or supplement its previous reports or provide a new report altogether [4].

Sensationalist reporting of medical research is not rare and can have serious consequences. It can raise false hopes or generate needless fear [5]. However, the media isn’t solely responsible for misleading the public about research findings. In 2014, research showed that the majority of university press-releases, usually approved by the lead researcher, tend to exaggerate research findings. Because reporters rely on these press-releases, inaccurate information is more widely disseminated [6]. Therefore, in order to improve reports of research findings and their presentation to the public, close collaboration between researchers and journalists is essential [5].

  1. 1.0 1.1 Brown P. Nothing but the truth. Are the media as bad at communicating science as scientists fear? EMBO reports. 2012;13(11):964-967.
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Conversation. How social media can distort and misinform when communicating science. 2016 June 30. [cited 2020 July 9]. Available from: https://theconversation.com/how-social-media-can-distort-and-misinform-when-communicating-science-59044.
  3. Kotwani N. The media miss key points in scientific reporting. Virtual Mentor. 2007;9(3);188-192.
  4. Resnick B. Study: half of the studies you read about in the news are wrong. Vox. 2017 Mar 3. [cited 2020 July 9]. Available from: https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/3/14792174/half-scientific-studies-news-are-wrong.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Ransohoff D F, Ransohoff R M. Sensationalism in the media: when scientists and journalists may be complicit collaborators. Eff Clin Pract. 2001;4(4):185-188.
  6. Sumner P, Vivian-Griffiths S, Boivin J, Williams A, Venetis C A, Davies A, et al. The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. BMJ. 2014;349:7015.

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

A prominent example of the distortion of research findings by the media relates to an article published in PLoS One in 2009 [1]. It presented a study that examined whether NHS hospitals in England have a higher mortality rate in the first week of August than in the last week of July, due to the fact that newly qualified doctors begin working in hospitals on the first Wednesday of August. The study used hospital admissions data from 2000 to 2008 for all emergency patients in the last week of July and the first week of August. Taking into account the year, patient gender, socio-economic deprivations and co-morbidity, the study showed that for patients admitted on the first Wednesday of August the odds of death were 6% higher in comparison to those admitted on the last Wednesday in July. Also, clinical patients on the first Wednesday of August had 8% higher odds of death than surgical patients. Even though the confidence intervals for these odds ratios included a value of 1, and researchers suggested that further studies were needed, the media distorted the study findings. Under a sensationalist headline, “Killing Season”, The Daily Mail reported that death rates are 8% higher in the said period because newly qualified doctors had started their jobs [2]. It reported that the “number of mistakes are so notoriously high that day of the week” that this day should be called “Black Wednesday” [2]. Other media outlets reprised the phrases “Killing season” [3]. Some even said that it was “the worst day of the year to go to hospital” [4].

Sometimes researchers and reporters can, together, contribute to sensationalism and the exaggeration of research findings. One of the studies that caused a lot of uproar in 2015 was written by Tomasetti and Vogelstein, and published in Science [5]. The media, along with some experts, including the authors, oversimplified the interpretation of the results, claiming that the vast majority of cancers are caused by random mutations or “bad luck” [6]. However, experts and the media paid insufficient attention to the study design. It was an observational study, so no definitive or reliable inferences could be made regarding the cause and effect relationship; conclusions could only be based on the associations between different cancer-occurrence factors, which do not reliably support conclusions regarding direct causation.

  1. Jen M H, Bottle A, Majeed A, Bell D, Aylin P. Early in-hospital mortality following trainee doctors’ first day at work. PLoS One. 2009;4(9):e7103.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hope J. ‘Killing season’ on NHS wards: Patients at risk when junior doctors start new jobs, says health boss. Mail Online. 2012 June 22. [cited 2020 July 10]. Available from: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2163382/NHS-wards-Patients-risk-junior-doctors-start-new-jobs-says-health-boss-Sir-Bruce-Keogh.html.
  3. Smith R. Thousands of juniors start jobs in NHS ‘killing season’. The Telegraph. 2012 Aug 1. [cited July 10 2020]. Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/9441885/Thousands-of-juniors-start-jobs-in-NHS-killing-season.html.
  4. Kingsley Napley. Black Wednesday: the worst day of the year to go to hospital. 2012 Aug 1. [cited July 10 2020]. Available from: https://www.kingsleynapley.co.uk/insights/blogs/medical-negligence-and-personal-injury-blog/black-wednesday-the-worst-day-of-the-year-to-go-to-hospital.
  5. Tomasetti C, Vogelstein B. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science. 2015;347(6217):78-81.
  6. Grady D. Cancer’s Random Assault. The New York Times. 2015 Jan 5. [cited July 11]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/06/health/cancers-random-assault.html.