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Bad Journalism


It’s just a fat man at an organ rewriting a press release.

So that’s a really difficult question: how do you…if you read something a bit worrying in a newspaper, how do you make your own informed judgment?  Um, the first thing you have to do is that you have to get to the original research, for example you have to know whether it was a randomised controlled trial, if it’s making a claim that something cures something, or was it just some sort of observational data, and doing that can be very difficult because mainstream media can be very reluctant to link to the primary sources on which they base their stories, whether those are academic papers or press releases.  That’s partly because it’s the sort of Wizard of Oz thing, you know, they don’t want you to pull back the curtain and see that actually all they do is, it’s just a fat man at an organ rewriting a press release.

So, if you’re lucky, it would’ve been picked up by a fantastic service called Behind the Headlines, which I had a small part in helping to set up as part of NHS Choices, so if you go to NHS.uk/news, every day they take the two biggest news stories and they go and get the original scientific research it was based on, they give a really straight description of what the research was, what they did, what they found, what they measured, put it in the context of what other work in the same area has found – so, is this a freak finding or is this pretty much consistent with what everybody else has found before – and then, um, a round up of the media coverage and perhaps some pointers on where people overstated it.  If you’re lucky, it’s been done for you.  But actually there are a lot of situations where mainstream media want to mislead you, they just can, and if you’re given a very selective picture, for example…so, publication bias is something I’m very worried about in academia, where people only report freak findings or they tend to report the more flattering findings about their drug, that’s an issue for understanding how good a treatment is or how strong an association is between a risk factor and a health outcome.  But it’s also an issue in mainstream media coverage because newspapers inherently are more likely to want to cover an eye catching freak story.  The very things that make something more newsworthy are also the things that make them more likely to be wrong, you know, they’re freak stories, they’re unusual, it’s dog bites man…no, it’s man bites dog rather than dog bites man, and in those cases, you know, if people set out to deceive you, then, then maybe they probably can get away with that sometimes. 

So I’ll tell you something else interesting, in exactly the same way that journalists, quacks, big pharma, government, press offices and everybody else all misuse science, in the same way – and I wouldn’t put a cigarette paper between them – they also all behave in the same way when they’re caught out making dodgy claims, like, nobody ever asks me about my life and that’s fine cause I’m not that kind of girl, but no matter how straight and clean you are in your criticisms of how people have misused science, you elicit exactly the same kind of lurid, colourful, often very personal and vindictive denunciations from everybody, so, you know, quacks go off and you know they get some PR person or private detective to write long and elaborate screeds about how you’re in the pay of big pharma, ironically.  Pharma write long elaborate, lurid, colourful screeds about…I had one recently from Phrma, the American pharmaceutical industry representative body, saying that me and the BMJ want to just post patients’ full confidential medical records online for everyone to see, which obviously we don’t.  Or you get journalists writing elaborate very sort of lewd, colourful, very personal, very vindictive things about what a bad person you are, in blogs or comments or in, or sometimes like, ah, complaints, official complaints to the editor with completely forged documentation.  I had one chap who changed his article silently online and then sent his changed article in to the Ombudsman at the Guardian as evidence that I’d been unfair to him.  Or Steve Connor in The Independent, there’ve been a few columns about what a horrible person I am for daring to say that something was wrong in The Independent; Steve Connor wrote this brilliant piece which he wrote in very, very sort of damning terms about all of the stupid things that I had said at a meeting with Vaughan Bell and Petra Boynton at Penderel’s Oak in a pub, um, all these dreadful stupid things that we’d said, and he published his article two days before this meeting had even happened.

So it’s interesting; it comes at a cost, doing this stuff, you can see why people are reluctant…you can see why people are reluctant to do it, and it’s also interesting that no matter how straight you are in how you do it, cause I don’t think I’m a particularly sort of, mean person…and no matter how straight you do it, people will still respond by lashing out in a way that basically does your job for you I suppose, you know, the reputational torpedo that switches course halfway and, um, punches you in the tits.