KSJ Tracker November 20, 2012

Scientific American: What is a website's responsibility to be accurate in a teaser outside the pay wall?

Here is the lede on a teaser I just spotted on Scientific American's website, in front of the magazine's pay wall:

Many pregnant women indulge in an occasional—or even regular—glass of wine and then worry that it might put their baby at a mental disadvantage. A new study of more than 1,600 Danish five-year-old children shows that these non-teetotaler moms can breathe a sigh of relief.

That's a startling conclusion. The article by Stephani Sutherland--which I can't read, because it's behind the pay wall--might be more nuanced than that. It might include the limitations of the study, along with the opinions of other researchers. But this 240-word teaser isn't nuanced at all and, as a result, is seriously misleading. The headline is "A daily glass of wine is okay during pregnancy," and the subhed is "Moms' moderate drinking does not affect kids' cognition."

"Kids whose mothers had up to eight drinks a week were just as smart as their peers born to abstaining moms," the teaser continues. Even women who had a last binge of five or more drinks before realizing they were pregnant "can breathe easy."

The teaser notes that heavier drinking during pregnancy "does handicap children" and says "some reports" suggested that even small amounts could harm the child. It follows that with a quote from one of the researchers. Still, the teaser ends with this: "Expecting moms can relax, it appears, and have a drink now and then, guilt-free." In other words, the heck with those other reports. They're wrong, and this one is correct.

Even the press release from the journal that published the research is more cautious. "Despite these findings," it says, "additional large scale studies should be undertaken to further investigate the possible effects.” That might be in the article, but it should be in the teaser, too.

The issue here is this: What is a website's responsibility regarding the accuracy of a brief teaser placed in front of the pay wall?

Scientific American is a highly regarded publication that would not publish a story about a study without properly reporting on the study's limitations and context. But that's precisely what it has done in this teaser. 

Obviously, there is less space in the teaser than in the article. But this teaser is about 240 words long--surely long enough to use 20-30 words to describe the study's limitations and to make clear that a single study rarely allows anyone to breathe easily about anything. 

Even if a glass of wine a day doesn't affect cognition, one might worry about other things. What about the risk of birth defects, or the risk of mental illness, or any other consequence besides drinking's effect on cognition?

As it happens, a study last week in PLOS One "reveals that even a few drinks a week by an expectant mother can lead to reductions in a child’s IQ if the child has certain genetic variations impairing their ability to break down alcohol," according to an article by Jon Bardin in the Los Angeles Times. That article also claims to have "the final word" on the subject: "Just don't drink."

Without reading either study, I can give you the real last word: Neither of these studies, nor any other single study, is the final word on the possible risks of drinking during pregnancy. At least in the case of the Los Angeles Times, we can read the article. With Scientific American, many of us can't.

As I said above, the article itself in Scientific American might be blameless. But the teaser is a serious problem. And only Scientific American subscribers will be able to see beyond it. Many readers will likely see the teaser without having access to the article--and they will be seriously misled.

-Paul Raeburn


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