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The Consumer Effects Of 'Infotainment' Science Reporting

by Alison Hudson

May 16, 2013

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Donate Now this is the kind of journalism I like to see. Earlier today, the Guardian published "The need for critical science journalism" by Dr. Jalees Rehman, a well-aimed jab at the way most media outlets handle science reporting. Labeling the typical mainstream science reporting approach as "infotainment," Rehman rightly criticizes journalists for hyping science story over science fact, and for "[operating] under the assumption that if a scientific paper has been peer-reviewed and published by conscientious scientists, the results and conclusions are valid." He goes on to describe and champion a more critical approach to science reporting.

Where Rehman stops, however, is in discussing the larger negative consequences of bad science reporting -- misinformed readers who form uncritical views or make poorly informed decisions based on the science hype.

When your average reader sees an article on a new scientific discovery, they're going to be enamored by the splashy, link-bait language in the headline. They might even maintain a high level of interest through the first few paragraphs where the discovery is fleshed out. But by the time the article starts quoting scientists or offering specific details, a lot of people tune out. They may not even finish the article.

But they will remember the headline. And they will believe it to be true.

A study finds that upping intake of certain nutrient has a small but measurable effect on, say, weight loss. The scientists, eager to generate a little press (and maybe some additional funding), announce in a press release that consuming the nutrient "may aid in weight loss" and by the way, with a little more money we could look into it more.

That afternoon, the Huffington Post has a link on their front page: SCIENTISTS MAY HAVE UNCOVERED NEW KEY TO WEIGHT LOSS. Because, hey, you've got to get them to click on the link, right? The actual article usually has a less sensational title ("Scientists Find That [Nutrient] Helps With Weight Loss") but the expectation has already been planted. The ensuing infotainment article may have some cautionary comments, but all the average reader will remember is the name of the nutrient and those words that made them click the link: SCIENTISTS, NEW KEY, WEIGHT LOSS.

Within a week, there will be a dozen blog posts and articles on sites like Livestrong, each one offering "Top 5 [Nutrient] Containing Foods" or "How to Fit More [Nutrient] Into Your Diet." Products containing the nutrient will see their sales spike, leading the manufacturers to (a) produce more, and (b) raise prices. If demand grows enough, some clever company might even create a nutrient-infused bottled water or powdered food additive.

Alternative medicine picks up on the trend, and suddenly the nutrient takes on even more properties -- maybe it helps reduce cholesterol, or excess gas, or glaucoma. Or heck, why not all three, so long as the claims are vague enough. Homeopathic medicines are sure to follow.

Am I exaggerating this hypothetical? Maybe a bit. But ask yourself how it is that things like Ginko Biloba or Ginseng have come to be common additives to everything from bottled tea to energy bars. Not through good science; but through hyped studies and overblown results.

Rehman ends his article with a helpful list of tips for reading science reporting more critically. It's sensible stuff -- consider the writing style, look for context, etc. Would that more people heeded the need for skepticism in their approach to reading about new discoveries. It would certainly be a good thing for society (even if it may be bad for business).


by Alison Hudson

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