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Our 6 month anniversary: looking back at headlines

by on 2014/02/28

We at the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) launched Research the Headlines 6 months ago this week on August 29th at one of our plenary meetings. Since then we have written on a broad range of topics reflecting the multi-disciplinary nature of the YAS, from weather forecasting to battles over homework to the quality of breast milk. Some of our pieces have commented on examples of good reporting while others have highlighted where there has been no science about the story.

We have frequently commented on dubious use of headlines in relation to research findings discussed in the news. The Science Media Centre highlighted the importance of accurate headlines in the 10 best practice guidelines they published in connection with the Leveson Inquiry. The 10th guideline states that ‘Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement’. Here at Research the Headlines we have discussed many examples where this guideline has been flouted over the last 6 months.

We recently discussed coverage of a research study that examined Vitamin C use and chemotherapy. The BBC came under criticism from the NHS for its original headline “Vitamin C keeps cancer at bay”, which was later changed to “Vitamin C ‘gives chemotherapy a boost’”. As the Research the Headlines author noted, such practices mean that when thinking about medical treatments the public should always consult medical experts not headlines. Flouting the Science Media Centre guidelines here is particularly significant in relation to potential effects on the health of the general population. In other news stories we covered, parents of children with autism were being told that their children “outgrow communication problems”. Our analysis of the research showed that this headline was misleading.  The study was not designed to allow this definitive headline.

Caution about headlines is particularly critical for vulnerable readers such as patients with cancer and parents of children with special needs. There are a whole range of groups for which such sensationalist headlines will cause alarm and potentially alter significant life choices they make. Various groups, such as the British Psychological Society, made submissions to the Leveson Inquiry that raised concerns about the press coverage given to vulnerable groups, including those with mental health issues and disabilities.

We also note examples of accurate reporting. Back in December we wrote about exercise and success in school. Both the Express and Scotsman gave a balanced reporting of the main findings (the overall benefit of moderate-vigorous physical activity). The Scotsman‘s coverage was particularly good. Importantly they cited the scientific journal the original study was published in – this enables the interested reader to check out the merits of the headline for themselves. They also  quoted from two of the study authors – a practice we are happy to say is becoming increasingly common by reporters.

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