Neil Graham: Don’t underestimate your audience, science journalists

Reading science blogger Martin Robbins’ meticulously observed, not to mention witty article “This is a news website article about a scientific paper“, I was overcome by a warm, fraternal feeling.

It seems that I’m not the only person to have been infuriated by the difficulty regularly experienced in trying to navigate from the coverage of a scientific story in the popular press to the actual paper.

Perhaps Martin and I have too much time on our hands, but reading an absurdly sensational headline, the classic “Drinking coffee quadruples risk of toe cancer,” say scientists, produces an irresistible urge to look up at source and reassure myself that the claim is indeed vastly exaggerated.

At best, he observes, you’re likely to find the name of the journal. Most often you’re told even less: something along the lines of “Scientists at Harvard Medical School have discovered..,” with no mention of journal, volume, issue, or authors.

Such a complaint is likely to provoke the riposte that bibliographic information would make an article dull and dry to read. It’s true. But allow me to dream, wistfully, for a moment: if only there were some way to easily “link” readers with the source paper, without needing all the bibliographic garbage.

What would such a “link” look like? It would probably be blue, underlined, and might well be quite short: Hardly article-ruining, and hardly groundbreaking in 2010.

So why aren’t links to original research papers included in scientific news stories as a matter of course? The sympathetic among us might note that sometimes scientific journals provide press releases to the mainstream media with embargoes set to expire before online versions of the paper are available to link to. Quite an unimpressive situation, but easily solved.

Less elaborate, is the proposition that journalists simply can’t be bothered with the inconvenience of linking to papers. While this might well be the case, there are possibilities of a more forgiving nature to consider. News outlets might reasonably be anxious about linking readers to an abstract alongside a pay-wall restricting access to the full article. But abstracts in decent journals are generally quite comprehensive and certainly better than nothing.

As anyone who’s met a patient who’s been informed of the latest wonder-cure or killer “toxin” will testify, the claim that “people aren’t interested” is both depressing and inaccurate. But it’s not as bad as the view that readers won’t understand the subject matter, a position which if true, would emphasise all the more the dangers of making sensational, un-checkable claims.

Was anything learned from MMR? The allure of sensationalism is understandably tough to overcome in a competitive “news market.” One can appreciate that a journalist is likely to receive a somewhat frosty reception from their editor with the headline “Retrospective study demonstrates increased association between caffeine and increased lifetime risk of toe cancer from 0.001% to 0.002%,” but there is an acceptable intermediate solution. Let us meet half way and accept a degree of lexical showmanship, but with the condition that it must be accompanied by the means for readers to verify the report.

Science is different from reporting politics and necessitates a different approach. The art to writing interesting, informative, and entertaining pieces about research isn’t the less for providing readers with the means to find out more. Journalism might be relieved of a veil of mystery, but citing scientific sources will rarely compromise professional integrity of either the source or reporter. Indeed, providing an inbuilt fact-checking mechanism should reasonably be expected to elevate standards where oversights do occur.

Ten years after the dawn of the millennium, it’s time patients were trusted with the information they need to take their own decisions. To do that, we need do little more than turn to a decidedly twentieth century piece of technology: the campaign for the link begins. So said “a trainee scientist writing on the BMJ’s website this week”.

Neil Graham is a final year medical student at UCL Medical School