Be prepared to cover medical research claims during election season

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.


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As the race toward the 2016 election gradually takes over more and more media coverage, Americans’ attention will be pulled toward the issues that dominate the election.

In some cases, unexpected issues will take center stage, if briefly, following a campaign trail speech or an organized debate. And sometimes, these issues will have a connection to medical research, so journalists need to be ready.

It’s already happened, of course. During the CNN Republican debate, the response of Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Rand Paul to questions about vaccines led to an uproar in the press because none of the responses were fully evidence-based, something I covered for Forbes in Ben Carson Doesn’t Get It: All Our Vaccines Prevent Death. (Search for the column’s title at the site if it doesn’t immediately come up.) Hopefully, discussion of vaccines will fade from election talk because the last thing we need is politicization of such a tenuous public health issue.

Plenty of other health and science issues have the potential to show up in speeches, interviews, debates and other events. Yet, as Dan Rather notes in an opinion piece at Mashable, “By and large the press does not cover science well.” Rather mentions vaccines and climate change, but he also brings up GMOs, an issue where the scientific evidence base clearly supports the safety of consuming GMO foods. Still, controversy over their effects on human health persist in the popular imagination, including that of some politicians. When these issues make an appearance, however fleeting, health journalists have an opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to make up for the poor reporting that Rather discusses.

As he points out, the problem is not so much that mainstream media doesn’t cover science – including medical science. Instead, “It’s that we don’t even do a good job explaining how scientific research works,” he writes. “We don’t understand how data should be analyzed or what a scientific consensus actually means.” He gives the mainstream media a “generous” C- grade on science coverage, which would include coverage of medical research.

Part of the problem is not understanding the process of research in all its glorious messiness, and part is falling prey to false equivalency. That can happen when journalists make the mistake of “covering both sides” for objectivity even when “both sides” are not equally supported by the evidence.

Explainers may not be the sexiest type of articles, but as the election season heats up, they will become increasingly important when medical issues are discussed. Consider the criticisms of Obamacare that may still surface and the need to rely on evidence to determine the validity of those criticisms and possible solutions to them. The public will need to be reminded that correlation does not equal causation, that context is essential in interpreting research, that truly understanding risk is important to decision-making, that all medical research has some bias. And so on.

Be on the lookout for when these opportunities present themselves. Be prepared to explain to the public what even the candidates themselves don’t get right. The only way the media can hold politicians accountable for accuracy in discussing medical research is if reporters themselves understand it.

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