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Looking back on Research the Headlines in 2021

by on 2021/12/20

2021 was another challenging year for evidence-based media reporting of research. Daily exposure to health related research has again 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 2021 we posted about media coverage of both COVID-19 and non-pandemic topics. Back in March we wrote a myth busting post about COVID-19. This post was very much needed at the time with all the inaccuracies about the virus that were going around. The post is still highly relevant now we have reached the end of the year as it covers issues like vaccines and variants. We also recently posted about the association between dementia and COVID-19 and were pleased to highlight there was balanced accurate reporting in the media about the research.

We blogged about other cases of accurate reporting of research over the last year. We saw examples of good reporting in posts about diet and brain health. Most journalists were careful to acknowledge 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 including linking to relevant charities such as our post about maternal health and obesity back in September. In a recent post about antimicrobial resistance we also highlighted excellent use of the views of an independent academic to support interpretation of the study.

Some media reports of research weren’t quite so accurate. Use of technology and its impact on health is frequently discussed in the media. Back in March we blogged about media coverage of ‘excessive’ smart phone use and highlighted how the media had exaggerated the findings of studies. At Research the Headlines we have frequently spoken about the need to try and look at what the research actually involved and what has been exaggerated.  Other examples of inaccurate reporting again related to risk reported in relation to a percentage format. We have regularly advised caution when interpreting the significance of a reduction or increase of something reported in percentage format. In this recent post about Vitamin D and bowel cancer, the media had reported that ‘eating just half a serving of salmon a day can slash your risk of getting bowel cancer by 50%, study claims’ in reference to the findings of the study.  In our ‘How to Research the Headlines’ tips series we have described the importance of referring to the absolute risk or benefit when describing results, so including the benefit with and without eating this portion of food.

We will continue with our range of activities in 2022 and look forward to continue working with early career researchers and offering them opportunities to develop their blogging skills!

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