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Looking Back on Research the Headlines in 2017

by on 2017/12/21

It has been another trying year for evidence-based journalism. Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to examine how research was portrayed in the media, and to give the public helpful advice and tools when trying to get to the heart of a news story. This task seems positively leviathan in our current climate.

Trump and Brexit still dominate the media cycle. We have watched as political actors have attempted to sideline and distort evidence-based research, and legions of social media trolls and bots have swamped our feeds with spam, lies and propaganda. This information war can only erode the public’s trust in scientific evidence, setting society onto a path with unambiguously disastrous consequences.

As a small team of academics with heavy workloads and family lives, it has seemed daunting at times to stand with others against this overwhelming current of misinformation (and disinformation). We have kept to our original promise of scrutinising sensational headlines, whether they be about autism, ADHD, volcanic eruptions, the supposed Scottish origins of dinosaurs, and even albatross conservation.

I’ll admit that I have found it difficult to keep my temper when reading some newspaper articles touting “research”, such as the so-called “perfect woman” articles that keep circulating like a bad smell, poisoning our cultural expectations of women. As a father of a very young daughter, I took great pleasure in excoriating a recent offering left in a curled pile by one news outlet.

There are grounds for optimism. Fake news is a phenomenon now well recognised by the public – we’ve talked about tools to protect yourself against it. More and more academics and intellectuals are using their voice to shape the public discourse (see our Talking Headlines series). The tidal wave of so-called “s**t-posting” by trolls and bots may be finally hitting flood prevention systems. They’re far from perfect, but I am hopeful that social media will continue to mature into a platform where evidence and rational debate are the most prized.

At no other time in our history have politicians, journalists and researchers faced more careful and intelligent scrutiny by the public they serve. If this continues, I think 2018 and the years beyond will show a newfound respect for clearly evidenced, rational thinking.

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