The relationship between science and the media is a bit of a catch 22: neither really understand each other and yet they both need each other to progress science and sell newspapers. But, how, why and when did this relationship start becoming so fragile?
To many, the internet is a blessing. After all, you can access anything you want at a few clicks of the button – whether it be crazy cat videos or scientific research. What’s not to like?
While having this vast expanse of data on offer may be a positive, it can also leave people confused as to which data or stories are true or not. You only have to look at your social media feed to see the conflicting stories available across the web.
The rise of ‘churnalism’
Within science, this is a massive concern. In a similar way to Chinese whispers, statements taken from true peer-reviewed scientific journals can be twisted into sensationalised headlines by the press, for want of a story.
Not only that, but journalism is notoriously competitive, so when one news outlet has a story, you can bet a rival news outlet will be working on a revised story of their own – based on the story already written. Another news outlet will then see more and more of these news stories coming out, and will then publish one itself.
This process goes on and on with each major news outlet producing an article based on the claims made in that very first story. But rarely, due to the fast-paced nature of online journalism and the press environment, will proper, peer-reviewed checks be made to the article prior to publishing. These articles will then circulate around the internet, only loosely based on the actual research featured in the academic journal. This whole process is known collectively as ‘churnalism’, where news outlets are hard-pressed by deadlines to ‘churn out’ pre-packaged journalistic articles to keep readers readily engaged.
Science media: the negatives
Take, for example, a recent headline featured prominently across many major UK newspapers claiming that there had been a “Major Cancer Breakthrough”. The research this claim was based on actually focused on a new type of oxygen MRI scanner which was proving successful in mice, but wouldn’t be available in humans for many years. And yet, the media jumped on it, making claims that this research could effectively be used to treat cancer soon.
This was wrong – the media used the claims to prey on the vulnerability of cancer sufferers hoping for a cure. The “Major Cancer Breakthrough” headlines were designed to create false hope and exploit those desperately seeking a solution. With that in mind, it’s not hard to see why scientists don’t trust the media.
Science media: the positives
However, the science–media relationship appears to have only become more fragile in recent times – and mainly because of this internet movement. Back in the 1950s, media broadcasting options were limited to only the radio and TV, meaning that only the most rigorous science, was reported.
A more recent example of effective science journalism comes from the 2005 BBC Panorama investigation into MRSA in hospitals. The undercover journalists used during this inquiry uncovered a widespread public issue in the spread of MRSA as a result of poor nursing practice and hygiene, leading to a high percentage of deaths amongst the elderly.
The media’s subsequent publication of this story highlighted the risk to the public, and initiated major changes in hospitals that ensured proper hygiene practices were put into place. Because of the media’s influence, the number of deaths caused by MRSA ‘superbugs’ dramatically decreased, with a 77.5% decline in mortality rate since 2008. As such, it soon becomes clear how powerful the media can be for implementing widespread change, demonstrating why science must make the media its ally rather than its enemy.