What’s a Health Journalist To Do?

Friday, May 23, 2014

Transcript

 

Earlier this month, Health and science reporter Virginia Hughes came across a new study about Resveratrol - a chemical in red wine that over the years has been both heralded as heart healing and dismissed as bogus. So she went back and reviewed earlier headlines about Resveratrol in the New York Times. The earliest was from August, 2003, titled “Life-Extending Chemical is Found in Certain Red Wines,” but in the years since, the headlines have ranged from charges of fraud to new optimism, to inconclusive studies, to more skepticism and then more optimism. This head-spinning trajectory is the norm in such stories because science is a process. So what’s even the most conscientious health reporter to do? Hughes posted about the saga of resveratrol on her blog, Only Human, hosted by National Geographic Magazine, and she sparked a big debate among health journalists themselves about the perils of reporting the latest health news.
 
“Science is iterative and often incremental, and the news is the news”. She wrote, “and so, science journalism is molded into a heffalump of both, where every new study suddenly becomes a news peg.”
 
Now, unlike a lot of other beats, when you read an article about health it’s often personally relevant. Hughes uses a story on neuroscience as an example of a piece that readers might read with curiosity and intrigue. Health stories, however, draw readers that are expecting practical advice. But to be absolutely true to the nature of science, you can't, in reporting, imply a better way to behave. On the other hand, as Hughes pointed out when she spoke to Brooke, “if you're covering something, the reason is because you think your reader is going to glean something from it.”
 
While Hughes explained that these conflicted studies have not lead her to increase or decrease her red wine consumption, she did admit to dietary reports affecting her thought, at least at first. Now, even those reports are overturned and debunked so often that Hughes has taken to largely ignoring them and simply, as she put it: “eat[ing] in moderation and do[ing] what [she] wants.”
 
Sometimes the stakes are fairly small, but sometimes, they can be very high. Cancer screening, for example, is a subject about which experts do not always agree, so journalists are covering an active debate about the benefits and harms. As Hughes notes, though, this method of reporting can also be beneficial or harmful.
 
“The good journalist will be honest and transparent about that debate and about the pros and cons. The bad ones or the time-strapped ones will present advice, you know, cloaked in a scientific brand and then leave it at that.”
 
In order to try and solve some of the issues surrounding health journalism, Hughes asked her readers within the health science journalism community to talk about what could be done to better cover health, and they came up with a bunch of possible solutions. One of them is explanatory journalism. The premise of this method would be to ignore the typical ‘news pyramid’ mode of reporting, and to instead offer links that allow the reader to explore the debates at their own leisure or interest level. Another suggested solution was to report on several studies at once. In this way, the reporting would demonstrate the variety of arguments that have arisen throughout the study on an issue. Other readers suggested reporting on how the science is done as opposed to the outcomes.
 
In general, though, these options suggest that, in order to do the best possible job reporting on health science, the journalist has to deny the readers what they most want. So Hughes offers another option – lowering expectations.
 
“[Insert] debate and nuance and doubt. I hate stories that treat science as some holy seer that has the answers to everything, because it’s absolutely not, and being wrong is sort of built into the process of science.”
 
In her blog post, Hughes wrote that, “The science of health is so, so confusing, I almost wonder if it would be better for journalists to stop writing about health altogether,” and while most of that cynicism has faded, she told us she still believes a genuine change is needed.
 
“Ninety-some percent of all biomedical research in this country is funded by the public, and the public deserves to know what they're paying for. I just think we need to be a little bit more selective about what we cover and more honest and transparent with readers about what those studies are showing.”
 
Virginia Hughes is a science journalist in New York. Her blog titled, Only Human, is hosted by National Geographic Magazine.
Earlier this month, Health and science reporter Virginia Hughes came across a new study about Resveratrol - a chemical in red wine that over the years has been both heralded as heart healing and dismissed as bogus. So she went back and reviewed earlier headlines about Resveratrol in the New York Times. The earliest was from August, 2003, titled “Life-Extending Chemical is Found in Certain Red Wines,” but in the years since, the headlines have ranged from charges of fraud to new optimism, to inconclusive studies, to more skepticism and then more optimism. This head-spinning trajectory is the norm in such stories because science is a process. So what’s even the most conscientious health reporter to do? Hughes posted about the saga of resveratrol on her blog, Only Human, hosted by National Geographic Magazine, and she sparked a big debate among health journalists themselves about the perils of reporting the latest health news.
 
Science is iterative and often incremental, and the news is the news”. She wrote, “and so, science journalism is molded into a heffalump of both, where every new study suddenly becomes a news peg.”
 
Now, unlike a lot of other beats, when you read an article about health it’s often personally relevant. Hughes uses a story on neuroscience as an example of a piece that readers might read with curiosity and intrigue. Health stories, however, draw readers that are expecting practical advice. But to be absolutely true to the nature of science, you can't, in reporting, imply a better way to behave. On the other hand, as Hughes pointed out when she spoke to Brooke, “if you're covering something, the reason is because you think your reader is going to glean something from it.
 
While Hughes explained that these conflicted studies have not lead her to increase or decrease her red wine consumption, she did admit to dietary reports affecting her thought, at least at first. Now, even those reports are overturned and debunked so often that Hughes has taken to largely ignoring them and simply, as she put it: “eat[ing] in moderation and do[ing] what [she] wants.
 
Sometimes the stakes are fairly small, but sometimes, they can be very high. Cancer screening, for example, is a subject about which experts do not always agree, so journalists are covering an active debate about the benefits and harms. As Hughes notes, though, this method of reporting can also be beneficial or harmful.
 
The good journalist will be honest and transparent about that debate and about the pros and cons. The bad ones or the time-strapped ones will present advice, you know, cloaked in a scientific brand and then leave it at that.
 
In order to try and solve some of the issues surrounding health journalism, Hughes asked her readers within the health science journalism community to talk about what could be done to better cover health, and they came up with a bunch of possible solutions. One of them is explanatory journalism. The premise of this method would be to ignore the typical ‘news pyramid’ mode of reporting, and to instead offer links that allow the reader to explore the debates at their own leisure or interest level. Another suggested solution was to report on several studies at once. In this way, the reporting would demonstrate the variety of arguments that have arisen throughout the study on an issue. Other readers suggested reporting on how the science is done as opposed to the outcomes.
 
In general, though, these options suggest that, in order to do the best possible job reporting on health science, the journalist has to deny the readers what they most want. So Hughes offers another option – lowering expectations.
 
[Insert] debate and nuance and doubt. I hate stories that treat science as some holy seer that has the answers to everything, because it’s absolutely not, and being wrong is sort of built into the process of science.
 
In her blog post, Hughes wrote that, “The science of health is so, so confusing, I almost wonder if it would be better for journalists to stop writing about health altogether,” and while most of that cynicism has faded, she told us she still believes a genuine change is needed.
 
Ninety-some percent of all biomedical research in this country is funded by the public, and the public deserves to know what they're paying for. I just think we need to be a little bit more selective about what we cover and more honest and transparent with readers about what those studies are showing.
 
Virginia Hughes is a science journalist in New York. Her blog titled, Only Human, is hosted by National Geographic Magazine.

 

Guests:

Virginia Hughes

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [2]

Tina Huang, Ph.D. from Seattle, WA

I speak from the perspective of a neuroscientist, neuroepidemiologist turned holistic healer for a happy & healthy brain. For 20 years I've been studying underlying causes of mental and cognitive health challenges and these are my personal guidelines for interpreting new scientific findings.

1.) Each new finding might be interesting as its own, but reporters need to realize that just because they have finally heard of the outcome does not mean that its a first finding. Too often I hear reports of discoveries, for example with the the recent discovery that flouride is a neurotoxin in the Lancet, that claim or imply that they are a first finding, when often many studies have already made that determination before. In the case of fluoride, there's already been 77 studies showing that it causes drops in IQ and impairments in learning and memory!! (see fluoridealert.org)

2.) Each study needs to be interpreted in the context of all previous research! Health reporters, when you talk to experts, ask them to tell you about the review articles or meta- analyses of the data that have been done. If you see too many conflicting findings, admitting to the public that the answers are still contraversial is important.

3.) From my investigations in my research in Alzhiemer's disease and then as a holisitic healer, I am absolutely convinced that things are often a risk ONLY in specific populations. The trouble is scientist haven't narrowed down the population that the substance applies to. An example of this is in Alzheimer's disease where having the APOE4 allele is a risk factor. But the risk factor profile for people with the APOE4 allelle is very different for someone without it! What I've come to realize is that for most chronic diseases there may be many underlying problems (some known, and some Western medicine refuses to acknowlege), and they all interact with each other to determine whether someone will get a disease. Because of limitations in data and costs, scientists cannot possibly get all the variables they need in one study to determine what interacts with what to cause a particular outcome. So, instead we get inconsistent answers between studies, because each is too small to help us determine when reserveratrol is protective. So reserveratrol is likely to be protective in some populations. We just don't know who those populations are yet.

4.) One thing we also need to think about is that a dietary factor could be helpful or harmful depending on the amount taken. For example the protective qualitiies of reserveratrol could depend on the amount consumed. Maybe you need a minimal amount to have a protective effect, but more than that amount may not be helpful. I have seen studies supporting this idea with wine and risk of cognitive decline.

So these are just some of the reasons for inconsistencies between findings. I hope this helps.

May. 25 2014 11:06 PM
Thatwood B. Telling from The Village

No, Virginia, there is no shame in denying to your readers that which does them harm. In fact, it's rather a good thing. Giving the people what they want is best left to entertainers and cynical politicians.

May. 25 2014 09:01 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.