Why you should be sceptical of science news.

General media vehicles often misinterpret scientific publications. Image from CC/www.flickr.com/m01229.
General media vehicles often misinterpret scientific publications. Image from CC/www.flickr.com/m01229.

The coverage of scientific studies by media outlets such as newspapers,television and radios are often given significant credit for what could many times be misleading information. In fact as journalists ourselves, we understand the need to attract people’s attention in order to stand out from other newspapers, with headlines often leading the reader to create higher expectations than the message being transmitted by the article itself.

Competition between media outlets is understandable with information being easily accessible by most people around the globe. However, there are many situations where a misleading headline could cause the general public to believe messages that, more often than not, are not real. You might argue that a simple online article couldn’t possibly do any damage and the topic shouldn’t be given such thought, but this is where people are mistaken. The very thing that was used to attract someone’s attention can become harmful very quickly, meaning situations may arise where a specific population might deposit their faith in a ‘discovery’ that has been incorrectly reported.

Reporting on scientific studies for example, requires a pattern where the information shared with the public is as consistent as possible and follows the same real insight provided by the researchers conducting the study in the first place. What can be seen nowadays is a completely unclear, obnoxious interpretation of many studies; mostly within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) department. As mentioned before, these misinterpretations can be harmful in many ways, most distinctly when medical research is concerned.

Following from the aforementioned scenario, a retrospective observational study published in 2014 in the BMJ discussed “the association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases”. The authors looked to identify sources of misinterpreted science news that could be harmful to the public. They used over 462 biomedical and health-related science news including journal articles, press releases and other media vehicles that could be involved in transmitting scientific information. Surprisingly, over 40, 33 and 36% of press releases contained, respectively, exaggerated advices, claims, or applied animal research into a human perspective. Moreover, news following press releases contained 58, 81 and 86% of similar overstatements, compared to only 17% when no exaggeration was made during the press release.

Science communication is key to ensuring good quality journal articles and science news are available to the public without misleading information. Headlines such as ‘cancer cure now found!’ or ‘lose weight and never develop Alzheimer’s’ can be considered cruel to those who are actually expecting real results. With that in mind, a charity named Science Media Centre (where science meets the headlines) was created to allow the public to better understand the research being done within science and engineering without misinterpretations – restoring the public’s trust in science.

Next time you decide to rely on shocking, unbelievable scientific news, make sure to check the article’s source – the information could be a false representation of the truth. Citing the scientific publication that the news was based on does not always imply the interpretation was correct, and you might find it clearer to read the actual paper.

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By Marcela Usmari