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The science of science in the media

Our blog’s typical pieces cover how science headlines in news outlets tend to favour sensationalism over accuracy in the reporting of scientific studies. This time instead, I am going to take the opposite approach and cover a scientific paper about media reporting which received relatively little media coverage. This study, conducted by a team at the University of Bordeaux, looked at more than 5000 articles about risk factors for different categories of diseases and how their results were covered in the media. The study analysed the extent of media coverage distinguishing between the initial results versus following follow up studies. The key message of this French study is not really surprising, yet quite revealing, even for us at Research the Headlines who are used to deal with this phenomenon.

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How to protect yourself against fake news and poor journalism

When we started Research the Headlines all the way back in 2013, we aimed to explore the relationship between academic research and the media, to help the general public know when the media was doing a good (or bad) job of portraying the latest discoveries about the world around us.

In 2017, we now face a new challenge – the so-called “fake news” phenomenon.  We’ve seen the fragmentation of news media allow for extreme bias in media outlets.  The speed at which the news cycle now operates allows websites to break a story based on false accounts, photoshopped images or bad data, and never be corrected.  Worst of all, the way we consume news means that it can be very hard for us to see unbiased journalism, as we have carved social media bubbles for ourselves.

The Research the Headlines team can only address so many news stories, as our time and resources are limited.  That doesn’t mean there is no hope – a piece of fake news is doomed to fail if the reader is vigilant.

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Does Vaping Increase Your Risk of Heart Problems?

The use of e-cigarettes has exploded in the last ten years, with some 2.2m people using e-cigarettes or vapourisers. This shift towards “vaping” is expected by some to have health benefits over using tobacco cigarettes, as many of the carcinogens in tobacco and the cigarette’s filter papers are not present in the aerosol mix that vaping provides the user.

A good deal of research confirms the view that switching from tobacco to e-cigarettes does carry net benefits, as we explored on RtH all the way back in 2014.

But vaping is still a new phenomenon. The dangers of tobacco took decades to identify, and required researchers to see the full life cycle of patients who smoke to find links between tobacco smoking and increased risks of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and many other ailments.

A new study claims to provide some of the first evidence that vaping does possess its own health risks, particularly to the heart. But how can they show this after only 10 years?

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Daily life or panic as volcano erupts?

Volcanoes are fascinating and people are drawn to them. My classes this week have involved discussing with the students the biased nature of the geological record and how important it is that we understand how the nature of reporting volcanic eruptions has changed with time. We also touched on the possibility that in recent times more eruptions have been recorded as our technology has improved and today we have a more mobile population. The ins and outs of this discussion is a debate within itself. What we concluded was that the record was biased and we had to take care to accurately report eruptions.

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Thin end of the wedge?

The emergence of extremely drug resistant bacteria could prove to be the first of many.

In the last week, two publications have appeared in the press describing the worrying emergence of bacteria that are resistant to many of the drugs we normally use to treat such infections. A lot has been written in the last few years regarding the threat of antimicrobial resistant infections, but it is clear, the more we look for these infections, the more we find them and the more dynamic the organisms causing them appear to be. Drug resistant infections are a global problem and the movement of people around the world can lead to the dissemination of drug resistant bacteria and both of these reports highlight this as a problem.

The first report was In the USA Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in their ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’, which was described widely in the press (Daily Mail, The Independent and the BBC Website).

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Evidenced based television soap coverage of late miscarriage

We have previously discussed television soap opera coverage of sensitive issues, such as mental health that was addressed in EastEnders last year. In recent days, another soap, Coronation Street, has been covering the highly sensitive issue of late miscarriage.

Long standing actress Kym Marsh, who plays Michelle was seen on Wednesday night’s episode giving birth to a baby who was not breathing at 23 weeks. The programme is to be commended for the evidence-based approach they took to covering this important and rarely discussed issue.

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Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence not opinion

Children’s use of technology, from iPads to playstations, television and internet exposure, is frequently discussed in the media.  Here at Research the Headlines we have discussed several examples of such media coverage – an example from September 2015 is reblogged below.  It was very welcoming then, to see a letter published in the Guardian last Friday signed by a group of psychologists (which includes 3 of the experts we interviewed in our Talking Headlines series, Dorothy Bishop, Suzi Gage and Kevin Mitchell) and other child development experts raising concern about how screen time guidelines ‘need to be built on evidence and not hype’. This letter was a response to a previous letter published in the Guardian that raised concerns about screen time without drawing on evidence.

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Talking Headlines: John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU and What Scotland Thinks websites.  He has been a regular contributor to the British Social Attitudes Report series since 1986 and an editor since 1994. He has also been a Co-Director of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey since its foundation in 1999, and his analyses of Scottish public opinion in the run up to the independence referendum were frequently featured throughout the campaigns. John is a regular media commentator on both British and Scottish politics. He is also President of the British Polling Council. Read more…

Looking Back on Research the Headlines in 2016

By most measures, the last 12 months have been epoch-making. From the UK’s decision to Brexit, to the USA’s decision to elect Donald Trump as President, we have seen again and again the importance of the media in shaping and driving public opinion, and the waning importance of fact in our political discourse.

At Research the Headlines, we try to remain as unbiased as possible when evaluating the media’s skill in translating academic research into news stories, and we will continue into 2017. This year, we addressed topics such as ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, dogs in shelters, how we measure the damage humanity is causing to the natural world, teenage suicide, dementia, asteroids and earthquakes.

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Talking Headlines: Dr Phillip Williamson on the importance of correcting misinformation in the media

Dr Phillip Williamson is an associate fellow at the University of East Anglia, employed by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).  His science coordination work includes programmes on ocean acidification (completed), shelf sea biogeochemistry (ongoing) and greenhouse gas removal (planned), all co-funded by NERC and UK government departments. Misleading reporting on ocean acidification has led to Dr Williamson to become a strong proponent of countering poor reporting and misinformation in the media, as shown by his recent column in Nature.

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