To tackle the idea of why the media distorts information, we have to start out with unraveling a common misconception about the force that is supposed to counteract it: fact checking.
Fact checking in the literal understanding is figuring out if something is true or false. And I would love to do that. Tell you: "No, [insert food item here] does not cause cancer!" Unfortunately, fact checking is often not that simple.
Keeping up with the theme of current events in the US, lets do an example from political debates. Say, if a politician says that the unemployment rate is at an all time high. That is quite easy to fact check. Assuming that an independent research organization with no political preferences and no conflicts of interest has conducted thorough research and we have access to that data- fact checking a simple a number or a trend- up or down - is easy. But when it comes to our topic of health news, things get a little more complicated.
When a study is being published, scientists and researchers, or, should I say- good scientists and researchers - have often gone through years of rigorous oversight, approvals and proposals, culminating in the publication of a 40+ page research paper, describing their hypothesis, their methods of research, their statistical analysis of their results, their limitations, their conclusions and their suggestions for further research and study.
This paper fills a niche in the research-osphere, where other scientists look at it in the context of all the other works published on this or similar topics. Research inspires more research, scientists compare and contrast results, try different methods, different variables, often reach different conclusions.
Sound complicated? It's meant to be.
So, what's the problem? Well, the pressure for scientists to get novel, groundbreaking results and publish them in the best journals and as often as possible is immense. Often their tenure, or in other words, their jobs, are on the line. But as you can imagine, not every study can be ground breaking, and nor should it be. Many studies are done to simply reaffirm previous assumptions to prove them as still true, or to compare the results of a previous study under new conditions and see if they get the same results. Simply put, to look at the big picture, scientists look at teeny tiny aspects of all the puzzle pieces, and then together, we can look back and see general trends and make conclusions. It is simply too complicated to look at the big picture all at once.
Where do we come in?
Well, our problem is we like fast, easy to digest tid-bits of information. Not many of us have time to sit down and muddle through the entire 40+ page paper every time a new one is published or want to pay for it, as many of the full texts are not even posted for free online. So, what happens is that scientists meet with journalists or give press releases, and then journalists either write articles or put together video segments to present to the general public on their various media outlets.
Here is where we hit our game of broken telephone, if you remember what I'm referring to from your early childhood: everyone sat in a circle and whispered the same word in their neighbors ear until you got to the last person, and the first and the last person had to compare words.
Theoretically, its such an easy concept, and it should work perfectly. But, as you may remember, many random factors come into playsome kid wasn't paying attention, some kid mixed the word up on purpose, some kid just spat in your ear and the teacher said that it counts, some kid didn't know the word or had trouble pronouncing it, and, somehow, we are usually left with garbled gibberish instead of one. simple. word.
Back to science.... if every journalist had an advanced degree, a Ph.D. and a M.D., preferably, or simply a deep enough understanding of the research topic being discussed, had no incentive to cut on time and amp up the sensationalism of the news segment, and if there was a system of accountability in place as a deterrent from misrepresenting scientific studies, and us, the lay public had the time and capacity to understand research study results unfiltered, everything would be fine.
The journalist would come out on the news and say:
"BREAKING NEWS: A new study found that AP39, a novel mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor, stimulates cellular bioenergetics, exerts cytoprotective effects and protects against the loss of mitochondrial DNA integrity in oxidatively stressed endothelial cells in vitro"
and we would all be thrilled.
But there seems to be a problem here, in that people would have no idea what the journalist is talking about, get annoyed or frustrated and change the channel without understanding what the news was actually saying and whether it was an important discovery in medical science. Instead, TIME publishes a headline "Scientists say smelling farts might prevent cancer". Definitely a much "catchier" and "digestible" nugget there.
Now, the TIMES article has been heavily redacted to now read: "A Stinky Compound May Protect Against Cell Damage, Study Finds" with a picture of, for some reason, cream cheese next to the title, and the text:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly summarized the findings and implications of this study.
But it's too late, the damage has been done. As often news agencies, blogs, etc. like to piggy back on their competitors, and from there is went:
Huffington Post: "Smell Of Flatulence May Reduce Risk Of Cancer, Stroke, Heart Attack And Dementia, Experts Find"
The Mirror: "Farts can fight strokes, heart attacks and dementia, scientists claim"
The Guardian: "Silent, not deadly; how farts cure diseases"
And as fun as these are to read, the scientists have come out again and again and said their study had nothing to do with farts curing cancer, they are doing real, serious medical research and will please, everyone stop asking them stupid questions. Whats the danger here? It makes a rigorous study of very complicated, nuanced compounds into a joke to be told to your 5 year old.
As a quick aside: I'm not stating as a fact that the Times article was the original source of the misunderstanding many of these articles do not put time stamps only the dates on their publications and multiple article may be published on the same day, or the originals are later edited and the original date changed. We can often tell who piggybacks on who, though, because many publications site other publications instead of the original article in a game of she said that he said that someone told him that and so on, seems to be, as a way of protecting themselves in case the original article turns out false and a way of cutting corners, assuming others have done their journalistic duty of checking their sources.
I am also in no way saying that the original article title - the one with the "novel mitochondria-targeted hydrogen sulfide donor" should have been reported on the news! I only used that to make a point of where we started and where we ended up. I do suggest that there MUST be a middle ground in between "loss of mitochondrial DNA integrity in oxidatively stressed endothelial cells in vitro" and "farts cure cancer".
Of course, research must be reported in non technical terms, but if taken too far, I fear too much information, and often the real results of the study, are lost in the translation.
One funny title may not seem like a problem, but the fact that we are bombarded with these articles and news segments featuring a "non fat", "drinkable" version of scientific research, where one study comes out that coffee causes high blood pressure, another that the same coffee helps prevent kidney disease, another that is has been shown to cause cancer of the esophagus, you may start to wonder one of three things:
- whether everything you eat of drink either causes or prevents cancer, meaning you should just eat and drink whatever and you have no sense of control over your life and health
- whether scientists are idiots wasting all that money smelling farts and are not trustworthy, so we shouldn't believe anything they say.
- whether the media is lying to you and you should not believe anything they say.
All three options have very serious consequences.
The lack of control over your life and health has the most obvious consequences. Eating healthy, staying in shape, and getting regular check ups are the easiest way for everyone to stay healthy, catch any illness before it become serious, and help manage any issues that already exist, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Giving up your sense of agency and control over this may lead you to think- "I will die anyway, I might as well not care".
For losing faith in science, that is a dangerous path as we then might not believe scientists when it comes to other issues, such as the dangers of climate change or the need for vaccinations. These are very controversial topics, and we will not dive into them now... but regardless of your views on these subjects, we should be able to agree that science has value.
True, not all studies are equally well funded, well performed, and sometimes data is interpreted incorrectly and, albeit rarely, even made up. But those are rare cases!
Most of the time it is not the research that is at fault, but how it is presented to us.
Which brings us to... losing faith in the media. Well, the effects are arguable. They depends on what role the media should play and does play in your life. If it is simply informative entertainment or "info-tainment", then maybe you already don't take it seriously. I would say, that's an unfortunate misuse of the media, as it could be a powerful agent of change and education. If the role of the media is in any way educational, then hearing them report studies in this comical, unresearched way is the perfect the boy who cried wolf analogy: when there is actually something important, we may not take them seriously.
So what can we do?
Here we have come to the point of this post, this website and The Health Files Podcast, and why we are here.
The misrepresentation and blatant oversimplification of research in the media a real problem.
And I believe we, as the lay public, can do something about it. The media assumes we are too stupid and not interested in the real facts and figures, but I disagree. We are not stupid. Overworked and impatient, maybe. But not stupid. And we definitely do not want to be lied to.
I want to be very clear, the idea is not to see if anyone is wrong or right. If I may bother the phrase: "only a Sith deals in absolutes".
It's not about right or wrong, and I am definitely not trying to tell anyone how and whether to change their behavior based on a new study. But I do believe that it is important for everyone to have a basic understanding of why and how the research gets distorted and how to go about digging deeper if one is actually interested to find out more.
My hope is that doing this will encourage a certain amount of critical thinking. Whenever you see anything on the TV or social media with the words "a new study shows", instead of sharing or believing blindly, you take a minute and look at their sources, look at whether they took the time to actually do their work as journalists, or if they are just trying to provide a quick bite of "info-tainment".
Ultimately, as more informed citizens we can demand higher quality of news, and then hopefully the media will reconsider their assumption that we are all stupid and don't actually care.
Together, let's break the cycle of misrepresentation of health research in the media. When you see an article with "a new study shows" in the title, tweet it at me @healthfilespod or use the Contact page, and I promise to do my best to follow up on them.
Thank you, and may the force be with you.