Scientific journalism: The dangers of misinformation

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Journalists can mislead when they interpret medical data instead of just reporting it


The 2011 movie Contagion portrays chaos resulting from the emergence of a highly lethal, rapidly progressing virus threatening to end civilization. One of the characters, a freelance journalist with a blog followed by 15 million people, directs his readers to ignore an effective vaccine the CDC has developed, assigning conspiratorial motives to the CDC’s efforts.

During a nationally televised 2011 presidential candidate debate, Representative Michele Bachmann created a controversy when she stated fellow candidate Texas Governor Rick Perry’s policy requiring sixth-grade girls to get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus exposed them to potential dangers.

Much has been written about the potential influence politicians and mass media have on the public’s understanding of scientific knowledge. Carvalho wrote, “The media have a crucial responsibility as a source of information and opinions about science and technology for citizens. Public perception and attitudes with regard to those domains are significantly influenced by representations of scientific knowledge conveyed by the press and other mass means of communication.”1

Recently, media attention generated by some critics—eg, professional journalists, nonmedical academics, and nonpsychiatric physicians—has questioned the effectiveness of antidepressants. These individuals are affecting public understanding of the issue.

Scientific journalism vs scientific discovery

Journalism exists in many forms—eg, advocacy, scientific, investigative—and has led to positive and negative social and cultural changes. Scientific journalism interprets information to make it interesting and understandable to readers. Ideally, journalists select what is newsworthy and provide balance to disputed themes with careful attention to the facts. Sometimes, a scientific journalist may render his or her opinion on the topic, explicitly or implicitly. When this occurs, the journalist may reflect the state-of-the-art accurately, or he or she may present biased journalism.

Although the modus operandi of a journalist can differ significantly from that of an expert conducting scientific inquiry, I do not intend to render a judgment about the superiority or inferiority of either group. Both groups have the ability to impact discovery, negatively and positively.

Scientific experts acquire and report scientific evidence regarding depression. Additionally, they develop professional guidelines to provide practical advice to clinicians who wrestle with the challenges of treating depression. Journalists are not trained to render medical judgments about the data; they simply report it.

Experts rely on pure transparency from the initial hypothesis through the design, methods, results, and conclusions. In contrast, journalists enjoy the time-honored privilege of hiding sources’ identities.

Before a scientific expert’s paper is published, he or she must negotiate a peer review process in which his or her writing is subjected to the scrutiny of qualified experts in the same field, a process that can last months to years. Journalistic methodologies also include editorial oversight, but it’s fair to say that the peer review process for scientific publication generally is more rigorous than editorial reviews of journalism, because the journalistic review process serves the goal of generating “news” for a hungry marketplace of ideas. Journalists pick and chose their content, hopefully in a balanced fashion, but at the discretion of the journalist and his or her editor. It’s relatively quick and easy for journalists to publish a book or newspaper article, and even easier to publish a blog.

Experts submitting manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals are not paid based on sales or impact factor. The literary style of the expert often is dry and technical compared with journalistic style. Academic authors are interested in promoting ideas that ultimately benefit the patients’ welfare. In contrast, most journalists have an invested interest in selling their work or increasing their blog following. Sustaining book sales can be a powerful personal incentive to cast the discourse in a compelling way, one that may counter prevailing medical opinion.

Of course, academic authors can benefit from publications in the form of grant support, scholarly authority, and notoriety. At times, these benefits can lead to personal financial gain, eg, collaborations with industry or compensation as a part of the scope of their work in their academic institution. This leads to the issue of disclosure. Disclosure has been a hot topic in medicine, and has led to the creation of the Physician Payment Sunshine Act,2 which is set to take effect August 1, 2013. Contained within the Affordable Care Act, this law will require pharmaceutical companies and other medical industries to report all direct payments or gifts to physicians >$10. With such disclosure, readers can judge the experts’ work with knowledge of what financial relationships may be in place.

No disclosure laws for journalists

In contrast, the public is not privy to journalists’ potential conflicts of interest. Although journalism has no “Sunshine” equivalent, there’s a culture of disclosure3 that is followed rigorously by some publishers and less rigorously by others. Disclosing conflicts of interest in journalism occurs internally as a function of an individual publisher’s policy. Would a “Sunshine” law applied to journalism affect how readers interpret a journalist’s rejection of the validity of prevailing expert views? Would such articles be more understandable if the public sees the amounts of journalists’ royalty checks, their collected fees for participation in their blogs or related advertising, or contributions from organizations that are against psychiatry?


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