Nothing But The Truth

Are the media as bad at communicating science as scientists fear? An article appearing in EMBO Reports this month by yours truly. Read the entire article here.

Everything gives you cancer, at least if you believe what you read in the news or see on TV. Fortunately, everything also cures cancer, from red wine to silver nanoparticles. Of course the truth lies somewhere in between, and scientists might point out that these claims are at worst dangerous sensationalism and at best misjudged journalism. These kinds of media story, which inflate the risks and benefits of research, have led to a mistrust of the press among some scientists. But are journalists solely at fault when science reporting goes wrong, as many scientists believe [1]? New research suggests it is time to lay to rest the myth that the press alone is to blame. The truth is far more nuanced and science reporting can go wrong at many stages, from the researchers to the press officers to the diverse producers of news.

Many science communication researchers suggest that science in the media is not as distorted as scientists believe, although they do admit that science reporting tends to under-represent risks and over-emphasize benefits [2]. “I think there is a lot less of this [misreported science] than some scientists presume. I actually think that there is a bit of laziness in the narrative around science and the media,” said Fiona Fox, Director of the UK Science Media Centre (London, UK), an independent press office that serves as a liaison between scientists and journalists. “My bottom line is that, certainly in the UK, a vast majority of journalists report science accurately in a measured way, and it's certainly not a terrible story. Having said that, lots of things do go wrong for a number of reasons.”

Fox said that the centre sees everything from fantastic press releases to those that completely misrepresent and sensationalize scientific findings. They have applauded news stories that beautifully reported the caveats and limitations of a particular scientific study, but they have also cringed as a radio talk show pitted a massive and influential body of research against a single non-scientist sceptic.

“You ask, is it the press releases, is it the universities, is it the journalists? The truth is that it's all three,” Fox said. “But even admitting that is admitting more complexity. So anyone who says that scientists and university press officers deliver perfectly accurate science and the media misrepresent it […] that really is not the whole story."

Read the entire article here.


1. Carsten LD, Illman DL (2002) Perceptions of accuracy in science writing. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 45: 153–156

2. Bubela TM, Caulfield TA (2004) Do the print media “hype” genetic research? A comparison of newspaper stories and peer-reviewed research papers. CMAJ 170: 1399–1407