Exaggerated science reporting – who’s to blame?


    Checking the latest health and science stories online, you tend to come across headlines meant to grab your attention.  But are those headlines stretching the truth? 

    Checking the latest health and science stories online, you tend to come across headlines such as “Transfat may hurt your memory” or “Genes may help identify children with future psychological problems” and “Why Tilapia is worse for you than bacon.” 

    Are the claims true? We often hear that science reporting exaggerates the findings of studies – but, whose fault is it?

    Regular Pulse contributor SciCurious, Bethany Brookshire of Science News and Society for Science and the Public, recently wrote about this issue. Brookshire explained that good science reporting takes time. After receiving a press release regarding a finding, reporters should request the whole study, read it, interview the scientist, and also get quotes and input from other scientists in the same field who did not participate in this research. She added that the blame for exaggeration does not just lie with the reporters, though.

    “At some level, it is everyone’s fault, and no one gets a pass,” he said. 

    For example, a recent study analyzed 462 press releases of biomedical studies in the United Kingdom that were later covered by different news outlets.

    “Forty percent of press releases contained advice not indicated in the scientific article, things like ‘stop eating eggs,'” said Brookshire. “Thirty-three percent of claims used stronger language than in the journal article, for example, conflating correlation with causation. Finally, 36 percent inferred a finding relating to human health when the study was not done in humans.”

    Brookshire said that despite potentially faulty press releases, it’s the reporter’s responsibility to get the story right. 

    “In the end, we as writers, as people who convey science to the public, it is our job to determine what is newsworthy, to report it responsibly, to check on facts,” said Brookshire. 

    She said consumers of science news should use trusted sources, and read different versions of a story reported in different news outlets, to get a better picture of the findings.

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