The churning of the news cycle, the pressure of scientists to get journal clicks, and the subsequent reward of funding has created a misinformation problem, according to a recent study. In a paper published in PLOS One, a team of researchers call out journalists who unfairly show preferential treatment to scientists who are the first to report on a discovery, even if their research is wrong. Journalists, the French researchers report, frequently choose to write about the flashy first study and fail to follow up with another article if that finding proves later to be disproved.
“Our study also suggests that most journalists from the general press do not know or prefer not to deal with the high degree of uncertainty inherent in early biomedical studies,” the researchers write, showcasing masterful academic shade. “This is partly due to the fact that newspapers preferentially cover ‘positive’ initial studies rather than subsequent observations, in particular those reporting null findings.”
These researchers have the receipts: In an analysis of 156 studies covered by 1,475 newspaper articles, they found that the results of only 48.7 percent of the studies were confirmed in later meta-reviews. The remaining studies were later refuted by subsequent findings. In the same pool of newspaper articles, only 75 articles focused on research that followed up on earlier scientific claims.
Journalists, they found, favor certain types of science. If a study was on a “lifestyle” topic, like the health risks of smoking cigarettes, then it was more likely that newspapers would both cover the initial and subsequent findings. However, if the subject was “non-lifestyle”, like a paper on genetic risks, then it was less likely that subsequent studies disputing initial research would be reported on. Readers like consuming articles about “lifestyle” topics more frequently because they can apply the information directly to their lives, the researchers posit, and this is why they get more newspaper coverage.
Essentially, the researchers worry that the average science-journalism consumer is turning into this:
“Journalists preferentially cover initial findings although they are often contradicted by meta-analysis and rarely inform the public when they are disconfirmed,” they write. In the paper, they advise journalists to inform the public that most initial research is still tentative.
So, dear reader: Even this research isn’t a testament of the absolute truth. As Vox points out, this paper only examined newspaper articles, while the journalistic landscape that covers science is much more complex (hello, websites, television, and magazines). And while this study, as it stands, has the numbers to demostrate that there is a serious problem with journalists failing to cover disputed findings, the situation at hand is much more complicated.
A 2014 paper in BMJ found that much of the hype that leaks into scientific journalism doesn’t come from the journalists themselves but from the university press agents that sell them on the research. Of the 462 press releases analyzed by the researchers, 40 percent contained health advice that wasn’t mentioned in the actual study, while 36 percent overinflated the importance of the research to humans. These press releases had a major influence on the way stories were written up by journalists: Of articles that referenced information provided in a press release, 86 percent overplayed the facts. When releases weren’t included, only 10 to 18 percent succumbed to the hype. According to this study, science journalists aren’t going to do a better job of reporting on nulled findings — but it’s more likely they won’t if universities are only sending them press release on initial research.
But even the press offices aren’t completely at fault. They are under the pressure of another influencer — the university itself, and the academic institutions that emphasize the publish or perish mentality. Scientists are under immense pressure to push out popular work, which in turn is evaluated in terms of clicks. This pressure is funneled into press departments, which push out sexy press releases to journalists and ignore more temperate studies, which reflect more scientific thinking.
As this new paper argues, science is a “cumulative process that reduces uncertainty by combining initial findings with validation by subsequent studies.” Every part in the factory line could do a better job remembering this.