The pitfalls of made-for-media scientific research

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In our archive, you’ll find plenty of discussion about how the rhythms and demands of the newsroom impact media coverage of science, but what about the other side of the coin?

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Photo by youraddresshere via Flickr

What about those odd times when it appears that scientific researchers and publishers time their releases to get the most attention from the mainstream media?

When that question was begged by the overwhelming attention given to a study of heart attacks during two 1980s Superbowls that just happened to be released in time for this year’s big game, “Dr. Wes” Fisher examined the study on his blog. In this case, it seems, a well-timed news hook by the study’s authors may have triumphed over solid research. As an anecdote for all the unquestioning, “will-ya-look-at-this!” headlines, Fisher offers a quick laundry list of the study’s shortcomings:

  • Selection bias
  • Contamination bias
  • Co-intervention bias
  • The use of diagnosis codes culled from death certificates

(Hat tip to R. W. Donnell)

Online guide focuses on covering medical studies

Covering Medical Research

Reporters are inundated with lures to cover the latest medical study or scientific conference paper. And there are some significant milestones being reached in medical research. But, more often, the information reaching the public is way too preliminary or even misleading, say those behind a new AHCJ reporting guide on covering health studies.

The guide will help journalists analyze and write about health and medical research studies. It offers advice on recognizing and reporting the problems, limitations and backstory of a study, as well as publication biases in medical journals and it includes 10 questions you should answer to produce a meaningful and appropriately skeptical report. This guide, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will be a road map to help you do a better job of explaining research results for your audience.

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