Media outlets need to change their tactics for reporting on studies

When I worked as a TV news producer, I loved to run a good health study in my show. Give me some prescription pill b-roll, summarize a pre-written script handed down by CNN or ABC and plug it in to eat up some time at the bottom of the B or C block.

The news media reports on studies all the time, but sometimes I have to question – what for? Sure, it’s important for people to be informed about the research going on in the science community. There’s no doubt about that. But the problem is that media outlets nowadays, especially local TV stations and newspapers, use these studies as quick filler and don’t spend the proper time fleshing them out. The result is that news consumers don’t give them much thought. The problem is leading to increasing ignorance of scientific issues and making it easier to disguise the growing number of fake science journals published by ladder-climbing researchers across the globe and the publishers they pay off to print them. In fact, the issue has gotten so out of hand, some are concerned it may be negatively affecting one of the core principles of science research — that bad research will self-correct as more studies are conducted.

It’s like that joke that these days pretty much everything causes cancer. Ask someone about what causes cancer and they’ll tell you that every other day there is a new study that comes out saying plastic can cause cancer, or wait, here’s another one that says the results are inconclusive. Does aspirin really prevent heart attacks or did a drug company pay for that study to sell more pills? For someone outside the science community and even many within it, it’s hard to know what to trust.

Simply by virtue of the amount of studies we pump out, news consumers have study fatigue. They don’t trust the results of any studies because another study could easily come out and say something different. The studies often sound the same in the same vague terms. “There may be a tie between x and y. Researchers have found that in a study there was a percent change of x in the presence of y. They say more tests will be needed to determine if this information is in any way relevant to you.” It’s no wonder this kind of reporting is relegated to filler and the majority of news consumers tune out or put little stock in the results.

The media is getting this part of science and health reporting very wrong and it’s not just hurting the news and leaving people less informed. More than that, it is a missed opportunity to explain studies and their nuance, whether it’s breaking down the way the research is conducted to determine the realistic impacts it makes or explaining that the study may just be correlation and not causation and that further studies should be conducted and here’s what those studies should be. What about the scientists that are performing these studies? Who is their employer? Who is funding their study? Are they well-regarded in the science community? Does a spouse or relative create a conflict of interest in their research? These are pieces of information that we typically do not get in such a story. And all of those questions don’t even begin to take into account the new flood of research coming from online journals who will accept payments for publication, even if the science is dubious, or worse, just flat out false.

If we are going to report on a scientific study, it should either be given enough time and space to be fully reported and explained or it should not reported at all. For one, if you are diluting your news product to the point that it doesn’t mean much to your readers/viewers/listeners, then either make room for more reporting on the subject or report another issue more in depth.

But there is an even more important reason for improving how we report on research and studies – controversial issues like climate change or hydrofracking can no longer be covered in a way that is considered neutral or unbiased. So many studies with conflicting information have come out, no one knows what to trust when there appears to be conflict over an issue. Or worse, even when the science community is at a consensus about an issue, outside influences who are threatened by the results of the such research – for instance, businesses who may face a financial cost if the results of those studies are confirmed – can fund new studies to give the appearance that there is not consensus on an issue. As a result, news consumers who are only somewhat informed on health and science issues can be misled on the subject and be convinced to, at a minimum, question the seriousness of the issue, they may remain neutral or apathetic, or worse, they may be convinced to disregard the consensus of the scientific community, especially if they have a personal stake in that issue, perhaps working in an industry where a job may be perceived to be threatened by the ramifications of the study.

People who aren’t able to understand the scientific nuance or haven’t been explained it properly dismiss it and don’t call for change because, since they don’t know the true ramifications of climate change, they don’t understand why people think it’s a big deal. In that way, it’s very reminiscent of the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In his book, the citizens opt to get rid of books so people who can’t read them won’t feel left out or bad about themselves. In a similar way, American citizens throw out climate change and other scientific, health and environmental concerns because they can’t understand them.

If people in the scientific community are serious about tackling issues like climate change and making sure our citizens are informed against a growing tide of scientific misinformation, we first need to tackle the issue of intentional scientific ignorance by our populous and how the mainstream media’s half-hearted science and health reporting is contributing to the problem.