December 10, 2014

Spin and manipulation in science reporting

From The Independent

“Although it is common to blame media outlets and their journalists for news perceived as exaggerated, sensationalised, or alarmist, our principle findings were that most of the inflation detected in our study did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text of the press release produced by academics and their establishments,” the researchers write in the BMJ.

The study seems to be arguing that press offices are to blame for the spin, not journalists.

Ed Yong, a well-known freelance journalist and science writer, interpreted it differently on Twitter

Blame is not a zero-sum game. If exaggerations or inaccuracies end up in science/health reporting, then the journalist should always take 100% of the blame, even if the errors originated with scientists or press releases. Errors can arise anywhere; they are meant to end with us. We are meant to be bullshit filters. That is our job

It can be a hard job, with many systemic factors—editorial demands, time pressures, lack of expertise—that stop us from doing it properly. These are reasons for empathy, but they change nothing. If we publish misleading information, and try to apportion blame to our sources, we implicitly admit that we are mere stenographers—and thus useless. If we claim to matter, we must take blame.

I’d agree the blame isn’t zero-sum, and I think the scientists also deserve a lot of it.  Ben Goldacre has previously suggested that press releases should bear the name of one of the researchers as a responsible person and should appear in the journal next to the paper (easy for online journals).

In a way, the press offices of the universities and journals are the only people not really at fault, even if most of the spin originates there. They are the only people involved without a professional responsibility for getting the story accurate and in proportion. Making lemonade out of lemons is their job.

I would link to the paper and to Ben Goldacre’s commentary in the BMJ, but it isn’t available yet. You can read the Science Media Centre notes, which are based on the actual paper. The journal seem to have timed their media information releases so that there is plenty of media commentary and online discussion without the facts from the research being available.

The irony, it burns.


[Update: research paper is now available]

[Further update: and the research paper puts the blame more clearly on the researchers than the story in the Independent does — see comments]


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar

    Thanks for the post – I was involved in the research you write about. You say “the study seems to be arguing that press offices are to blame for the spin, not journalists”, but that’s not what we say at all. We say that the problem is systemic, and probably arises out of a mix of the institutional and economic pressures under which journalists, scientists, and PRs are working. If anything we say it’s the scientists’ responsibility, and we can change things.

    3 years ago

  • avatar

    But, yes, it was a bit frustrating not to have the paper out there.

    3 years ago

    • avatar
      Thomas Lumley

      Indeed. Probably not so much for Europeans, since you would have been asleep for most of that period, but it was the afternoon and evening here.

      I’m glad to see that the paper itself points at the researchers.

      3 years ago