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Looking back at Research the Headlines in 2020

by on 2020/12/31

2020 definitely goes down on record as the most challenging year for evidence-based media reporting of research. Daily exposure to health related research has impacted everyone this year. Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to examine how research is portrayed in the media, and to give the public helpful advice and tools when trying to get to the heart of a news story. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines” workshops and competition for primary school children.

During 2020 we posted about media coverage of both COVID-19 and non-pandemic topics. Of course many of our posts did focus on media coverage of COVID-19 research. Fairly early in the pandemic, back in March, we highlighted the research efforts already up and running to decipher the genetic code of the virus, to produce and test vaccines and to develop appropriate treatments. Nine months on and the impact of that research can now be seen. Just yesterday we had the exciting news of the approval of the vaccine developed at the University of Oxford. We highlighted the mixed media coverage of COVID-19 evidence with most reporting accurately but some sensationalist headlines evident.

Media coverage of COVID-19 research has pretty much followed that pattern throughout the last 9 months with most journalists reporting accurately and appropriately but other reporting has unfortunately fuelled myths. We wrote early on about research that reported on the impact of school closures. Since then we have continued to see reporting that is misleading such as media reports at the start of the pandemic that children are ‘super-spreaders’.   More recently we highlighted media reports of immunity being short-lasting and media discussion of products that may protect against COVID-19.     

We also covered a range of other topical issues discussed in the media. One of our most popular posts discussed the benefits of playing video-games for well-being. In a time where we are all staying at home this is of course a highly topical issue! We posted several articles on children’s development and trauma and stress. Neither of these posts were specifically related to the pandemic but the stressful nature of life experiences for many in the last year means these are highly topical.  As usual there were many news stories this year about positive and negative effects of alcohol. In this case we analysed media claims that beer can improve concentration and reduce dementia which were unpicked by the blog authors.

In most cases there was accurate reporting of research. We saw examples of excellent reporting in our post about the link between irregular periods and premature death. Most journalists explained the difference between association and causality in relation to the research covered and also included the view of independent experts. Both of these are key priorities we have covered in our Top Tips series. Frequently we saw good examples of sound reporting such as use of references to NHS website information to learn more about a health issue – dementia in this case.  Often media reports focused solely on reporting the one study without providing the wider context or relevance of the finding in relation to the broader science known on the topic. Examples of this often related to important health issues such as heart disease and the danger of parasites.  In our Top Tips series we focused on this issue of ‘no study stands alone’.

We will continue with our range of activities in 2021 and look forward to continue working with early career researchers and offering them opportunities to develop their blogging skills!

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