Doctor/blogger: Can’t depend on science reporting

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Val Jones, M.D., a blogger at Science-Based Medicine and president and CEO of a health education company, tees off on media coverage of science in a post titled “Why You Can’t Depend On The Press For Science Reporting.”

Jones writes about a recent encounter with a reporter writing about holistic treatments. The reporter interviewed Jones about energy healing and alternative medicine because a local hospital is offering therapeutic touch and Reiki healing treatments.

Jones, who documented the interview – or at least the “essence” of the interview – on the blog, says the final article didn’t include “a single word” of what she said and that the piece is:

full of the usual pseudoscientific arguments: anecdotal evidence, mistrust of scientific methods, a call to “open-mindedness,” an emphasis on “natural” as being synonymous with “safe and effective,” and an “everybody’s doing it, even academic medical centers” rationale for adoption. There was no dissenting opinion – just an unquestioning acceptance of energy medicine.

Jones’ skepticism about journalists’ ability to cover science in a fact- and evidence-based way is clear: “Thank goodness we’re no longer beholden to mainstream media for all our health news and commentary.”

She calls for scientists and health care professionals to “step up to the plate” and contribute to “unedited” outlets such as Science-Based Medicine because “Waiting for reporters to include us in the discourse could take a very long time…”

The comments on the post – now up to 30 – are interesting, with many reinforcing Jones’ view that journalists in general do a poor job. But there are some, such as one from “Fifi” that points out this particular reporter was probably not a science or health writer and was probably writing a “fluff” piece for a lifestyles section. Other commenters point out that it really does depend on who the reporter is.

So, Covering Health readers, what would you tell Jones about how you report science and health news? Do you see the same problems she does or is her generalization unfair?

3 thoughts on “Doctor/blogger: Can’t depend on science reporting

  1. Jody Schoger

    Anyone who agrees to be interviewed (and perhaps wants to be interviewed) needs to have some basic information about the person asking the questions. There are great reporters who can write about science, and there are lazy writers who pull stories from paid news wires that sound like “news.” The recent buzz about pomengranates and bitter melon extract come to mind.

    Making generalizations about anything stirs up comments but does not advance our shared mutual interests: building a healthy, educated society.

    Thank you.
    jody

  2. Kate Johnson

    I was so fired up about Dr. Val’s piece that I wrote my own!! I understand her frustration about this particular incident but solving the problem requires collaboration between journalists and scientists, not war! A recent JAMA commentary said as much – but the editor of the Lancet is intent on burning media bridges. I would love to hear what other journalists have to say about my blog:
    http://katejohnsonmednews.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/the-media-and-medical-miscommunication/

  3. Elaine Schattner, M.D.

    This discussion points to basic differences between how most doctors and journalists are trained to make decisions and convey information.

    Doctors are trained to render opinions based on the evidence available, through careful reading of journal articles and relative literature, including assessment of the statistics, methods and other details of the studies. They don’t, usually, ask other experts “what do you think about this or that?” A good doctor makes it her business to keep up with the literature and to practice medicine according to what she reads in current medical publications.

    Journalists often are trained, by contrast, to collect data by asking around – the more sources the better. The convention is to provide at least one voice for each “side” of a story, rather than providing an “answer.” As a result, there’s relatively more emphasis on what the experts say than on the technical findings of a new study or report.

    I find this approach – of asking experts – irrelevant to most good science journalism, where the facts should be clear or not, and unhelpful in most medical reporting. That’s because an expert’s insight, represented in a pulled quote, doesn’t necessarily advance the public’s knowledge of the facts, whatever those are.

    Rather, the use of quotes, whether they’re from Dr. Val or Harold Varmus, can distract the reader from the real news, i.e. the scientific discovery or report in itself. Experts are of course biased, that’s why we (journalists) call on them. Quite often it seems the quotes are agenda-driven rather than illuminating. Besides, in representing and ordering experts’ views, we and our editors necessarily introduce our perspective into the story, whether we acknowledge it or otherwise.

    So here’s an unconventional view of science and medical journalism: I think that the best, or at least the most objective, journalists (assuming objectivity is possible) would carefully review new findings and report on those directly, without reliance on interviews or other commentary.

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