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27Dec 2012

Media hype: Whose fault is it, journalists or scientists?

Media hype: Whose fault is it, journalists or scientists?

Some journalists have taken a beating lately over coverage of neuroscience, and some critics have blamed all journalists for the misdeeds of a few.

While some journalists are certainly guilty of some transgressions, it's also true, as Deborah Blum pointed out here not long ago, that scientists can be guilty of hype themselves. So I was a little cautious as I approached a guest post at Mind the Brain, a group blog at PLOS. The post was written by Adrian Preda, a psychiatrist at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. Its headline: "The Antidepressant Wars, a Sequel: How the Media Distort Findings and Do Harm to Patients." The blame for distortion, in other words, rests entirely with the media.

Yet in the introduction to the post, James Coyne, a psychologist and a member of the Mind the Brain team, writes, "A recent study demonstrated that apparent media distortion of science often starts with distorted scientific articles, and particularly those with hyped and exaggerated abstracts." And the post itself, as Coyne points out, "hits on the all too familiar theme of supposedly dispassionate and objective science authors pitching exaggerated claims about antidepressants (back and forth) to responsive journalists in ways that leave clinicians and laypersons confused and ambivalent about important decisions concerning medical treatment."

Preda's post is a careful look at studies on the effectiveness of depression and how some of them were covered, but it focuses mostly on misdeeds by researchers, not journalists. Reporters will find it useful for its dissection of how errors creep into the press, regardless of who is to blame. If scientists are going to be exaggerating in their abstracts or in interviews, reporters should be careful enough, and smart enough, not to let them get away with it. 

-Paul Raeburn


In addition to hype, there's still a big problem of the media being inaccurate about medical science in feature stories. I was a longtime journalist before I was diagnosed with sarcoma, and I now tweet, blog and write articles for the nonprofit Sarcoma Alliance. Because sarcoma is a rare cancer, stories are generally of the quick-hit feature variety, in which someone with sarcoma is held up as an inspiration. If I contact the newspaper to point out an error, it doesn't get fixed, and I get no response. 

Even in the stories on Hugo Chavez, the media often gets sarcoma wrong. 

I wish a KSJ fellow would choose sarcoma as a topic to study. I could help them get up to speed on the topic and help them catch errors. 

appreciate you excellent comment, Whoriskey, clearly has an agenda which leads him to obscure realities that you correctly point out. rather than tough I call this yellow journalism

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