In the context of the relationship between science, media and ethics, there are three major players: news consumers, journalists and researchers. All of the actors in the chain are a potential source of distortion of science news.
The general news consumer has limit of time and knowledge. Therefore they needs quick orientation among the daily news mostly only from the headlines or from the leads. They consume news because they are simply looking for facts and statements. Unfortunately, this approach to news gives no chance for nuanced or balanced opinions. For example, in 2009, such news consumers wanted an answer to the following question: should I be vaccinated against the H1N1 flu virus? Yes or no? In 2011 news consumers were looking for answers to another question: “Am I in danger because of radioactive material emitted by the accident of Fukushima? Yes or no?”
The increased competition in attracting consumers of such news has led mainstream media to increasingly exaggerated headlines or leads even for stories that would have traditionally been considered neutral. Newspapers that are keen to answer the demands of their readership and to compete for attention are often guilty of extreme simplification, generalisation and systematic exaggeration. All of these factors increasingly distort the original information.
Journalists could distort science news too. For example, in 2005, researchers from the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, discovered the human bocavirus. This virus is known to cause severe respiratory tract infection but is generally not life threatening, except when compounded by other health problems. The broadsheets employing science journalists reported the news correctly. But the online edition of Swedish tabloids indulged in sensationalist headline: “Swedish researchers find new virus that kills children!” The institute complained and the tabloid editor changed the headline.
There is also a new trend in that the content of secondary sources of information, such as specialist science web portal competing for attention with sensationalist deadlines, often ends up in the mainstream media. Too often, the coverage is done without any background check of the original publications in the primary sources.
Finally, there are different types of distortions caused by scientists. First the exaggeration in press releases and press conferences due to pressure to publish, according to the publish or perish adage, the funding pressure of the grant system requiring research results to be widely disseminated and the desire to meet the needs of the media. When the particle physics laboratory, CERN, announced in 2011 that the Large Hadron Collider had recorded particles which had broken the speed of light. This result was later disproved, and the erroneous findings attributed to a faulty element of the experiment’s fibre optic timing system.
However,futher science news distortions could be attributed to fabricated research results. According to the US National Science Foundation, there are three different types of scientific misconduct: including fabrication, falsification and plagiarism. The open access journal PLoS One reported in 2009 that 1.97% of researchers admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or result at least once and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. Among the most famous cases we could mention that of Woo Suk Hwang, who falsely reported to have succeeded in creating human embryonic stem cells by cloning and the Wakefield case who erroneously found that the MMR vaccine had links with autism in 1998 in the UK. This behaviour would certainly not help in bringing accurate scientific news
Despite the various sources of distortion in the system, there is still plenty of quality science news accurately reported. It is necessary to acknowledge the role of specialised science journalists and of journalists with a keen interest in science. It is essential that reporting on science gains further ground throughout the media as it is important to share discoveries of research—some of which publicly funded—with the public. Meanwhile, it is also key that the media perform their watchdog role in the progress of science. In conclusion, it is worth remembering that it is not always the media which is acting in an unethical way in the context of science reporting. For more successful efforts to communicate science at a large scale, the science community may need to learn a bit more about the nature of the media.
Featured image credit: Paul McDee