Most journalists know — or quickly learn — that animal studies are problematic and usually best left uncovered if writing about general health and medical findings for a broad consumer audience. In fact, simply the way animals are bred and used in research can be problematic.
Aside from the controversy over use of animals in research and debates on the usefulness and relevance of that research, the fact remains that humans aren’t mice, or rats or horses or pigs or even chimpanzees. What happens in animals therefore cannot ever be directly translated to human anatomy and physiology.
But that doesn’t mean health reporters should never consider covering studies on animals. Sometimes it is worthwhile to cover an animal study, even if it’s simply to debunk the inevitable exaggerated press it will get (such as the infamous Seralini study) or to help readers understand the limitations and methodological considerations related to animal studies, such as Esther Landhuis’s Nature piece about how “warmer living conditions could make lab mice better models of human disease.”
It therefore helps to have some pointers to consider when deciding whether you should or shouldn’t write about that embargoed study you expect to hit the headlines. AHCJ has added two new tip sheets to the Medical Studies Core Topic Area on what to keep in mind when covering or thinking about covering an animal study. The tip sheets are broken into two parts [Part 1 | Part 2] because they’re pretty detailed — the decision about whether to cover an animal study is rife with nuance and competing priorities, so you need to think carefully about why you want to cover it, who your audience is and what it will add to general public knowledge about animal research and the particular subjects the study relates to.
The two tip sheets grew out of a crowd-sourced social media post with comments from a wide range of health and science journalists who have been writing about medical research for years. Check out their helpful words of wisdom.