In an editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, “Promoting Healthy Skepticism in the News: Helping Journalists Get It Right,” Steven Woloshin, Lisa M. Schwartz and Barnett S. Kramer analyze some recent media coverage of journal articles and research findings and conclude that “When it comes to exaggeration of health hazards and medical breakthroughs, there is plenty of blame to go around.”
It would be easy to pin all the blame for exaggeration on journalists. After all, they have to grab their reader’s (or listener’s) attention. Screaming headlines and breathless reporting come in handy. And many health journalists lack the medical or statistical training needed to appraise research critically. Curiously, many fail to approach medical research with the same skepticism they routinely apply to political reporting. Nonetheless, blaming journalists for all exaggeration would be unfair. Many health journalists (and their editors) do a great job.
The writers also acknowledge that researchers’ passion can play a part, as well as the desire to get good media attention. They also point to journals’ failure to include or highlight some important elements that would help journalists accurately report on study findings.
In a move to help improve coverage of research, the JNCI has launched “a Web site for science and health journalists to help them ‘get it right.'” The first offering is “Reporting on Cancer Research,” a set of tip sheets designed to help reporters better understand oncology research and its results. It was developed for the writers’ book, Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics, and adapted for journalists attending the annual Medicine in the Media workshop. Each PDF highlights a different aspect of interpreting cancer research (risk numbers, statistics, findings and outcomes, and cautions), and all four are succinct and easy to use, even on deadline.