Sensationalism and reporting medical research

It seems every month or so there is another big story in the media about ‘new research’ ‘proving/finding’ something that is ‘good/bad’ for us. The latest being the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) research labelling processed Meatmeats as carcinogenic, and red meat as “probably” cancer causing. Each time we see such stories in the media, how much of it should we believe? How much should we question? How much of the advice should we follow?
The presentation of health related information in the media can have powerful impacts on the public’s understanding of what they should do to stay healthy. Mis-reporting causes confusion and stress and erodes trust in science and medicine. Although it is common to blame media outlets and their journalists for science-related news perceived as exaggerated, sensationalised, or alarmist, there is another source of the sensationalism.
University press releases have long been used to deliver important aspects of most scientific research, and because journalists are increasingly expected to produce more copy in less time, they now use university press releases as the authoritative source of most scientific research.
Recent studies have determined that most distortions, exaggerations, or changes to the main conclusions drawn from scientific research, do not begin in the media but are presented in the university press releases. The results of one study by the British Journal of Medicine(which examined 462 university press releases) found that 40% contained exaggerated advice; 33% contained exaggerated causal claims and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research.
It is important to understand that these results are not simply shifting the blame from one group of non-scientists (journalists) to another (press officers). Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers are not released without the approval of scientists. Thus most of the exaggeration is occurring from the scientific authors themselves. The blame, if it can be meaningfully apportioned, lies mainly with the increasing culture of university competition and need for self-promotion, interfacing with the increasing pressures on journalists to do more with less time.
I have always advocated a common sense approach to the unfolding of scientific research, because one of its aims is to disprove earlier research—soft science may never reach absolutes. I recommend reading as widely as you can, and consider there may be other conclusions drawn from the same research being presented. For more on my thoughts on the link between meat and cancer, see my blog Red Meat and Cancer: There’s More to the Story.  When it comes to health-related research in general, remember the best thing you can do for yourself is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and minimise emotional stress in your life. Our series of workshops can help you create a lifestyle that boosts your immune system and buffers the ill-effects of our modern living.