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Reporting back from last night’s Troublemaker’s Fringe

July 2nd, 2009

Dr Petra

Yesterday evening a group of science enthusiasts, bloggers and at least two science journalists crammed into the Penderel’s Oak pub, Holborn. We were all there as an alternative (and free) event to run alongside the very expensive World Conference of Science Journalists happening in London this week.

The ‘Troublemaker’s Fringe’ event was planned in response to poor science and health journalism, and the apparent lack of critical reflection organised in the official WCSJ event. All attendees at the WCSJ event were welcome at our gathering, although rather depressingly/predictably it seemed most weren’t interested. Maybe the way we pitched the evening offended their sensibilities?

One journalist, the Independent’s Science Editor Steve Connor certainly was put out by the event. He told all three presenters in no uncertain terms where we could shove it in his opinion piece “Lofty medics should stick to their day job” In fact we made Mr Connor so furious he was able to describe the event before it had even taken place. Mr Connor was invited to the event, but sadly didn’t turn up. I’m sure he’ll be glad to know the event was recorded so he can catch up at his leisure.

The presenters were myself, Vaughan from Mind Hacks (who is very organised and has already posted his slides from his excellent talk on media panics over communication technologies), and Ben Goldacre who you’ll all know from the famous Bad Science site.

My talk tackled Eight problems with science/health journalism and what we can do about it. I’ll be posting the slides later. Below is a list of the eight problems identified and links to further reading about the issues raised in my talk.

Problem #1 – Overreliance on surveys
The media is currently swamped with ‘surveys’ which are really a disguise for PR activity and free advertising. You can check places like response source or google news at any time with the word ‘survey’ (prefixed with any term you like – car, health, sex, food) and you’ll find a smorgasbord of dreadful surveys promoting all manner of nonsense. Along with the occasional kosher study. Except those are hard to spot and increasingly difficult to get covered as they’re competing alongside PR surveys which use shocking ‘findings’ and (allegedly) large samples to ensure coverage.

PR based surveys (or as Charlie Brooker describes them – PR-Reviewed Phindings) are cheap and easy content for journalists who are pressed for time and under pressure to fill copy. Unfortunately many journalists don’t understand social research and therefore believe the ONLY method out there is a survey, or that studies using smaller scale samples (qualitative research) or complex designs (RCTs, epidemiological studies) are either untrustworthy or too difficult to report on. Besides, PR companies make a very good job of writing clear press releases with all information set out for copying straight into your piece – and they pester the life out of journalists to ensure coverage. Something academic research doesn’t tend to do so well.

I’ve written various rants about crappy PR surveys on this blog previously (a fairly good summary with links to some atrocious examples of PR surveys can be found here). You may also be interested in this guide I wrote for the charity Media Wise ‘How to spot PR based research’. If you are interested in surveys for research I wrote a three part series on questionnaire design and use in the BMJ with colleagues a few years back. Unfortunately these aren’t open access, but if you want copies please email me.

One comment arising from the meeting last night (from someone who works in PR) was that academics could learn from PR in terms of how we deliver key messages. I completely agree with this, and for those of you interested in this area you might want to check out Gerard Hasting’s excellent Social Marketing: why should the devil have all the best tunes?

Problem #2 – The Fake Formula

This is the friend to the duff PR survey. It’s a false quasi mathematical ‘formula’ that suggests you can identify perfect days, biscuits, kisses and the like. All to promote a product. I mentioned an ongoing and well known problem formula from Cliff Arnall concerning the Most Depressing Day equation, which has combined poor mathematics with collaboration with mental health charities who ought to know better. Oh and threats to me from Mr Arnall to sue, so the least said there the better.

Aside from the bad science behind such formula there’s the problem of ‘experts’ fronting them. Which is particularly worrying when they are endorsing sexist celebrations of say, the perfect breast or bottom. Interestingly some of those who’re keen to participate in such activities view what they’re doing as science communication – as evidenced on a previous episode of Radio 4’s More or Less.

Problem #3 – Science/health stories are not always written by science/health journalists
Many of the stories concerning the health or social sciences are written about in the style pages of newspapers or mainstream magazines. By people with little or no training in how to understand social research – or critically appraise evidence. Which results in such travesty’s of reporting as the recent What Women Want stories running in both the New York Times and Sunday Times newspapers. Blogged in a very ranty (and long) post here.

Problem #4 – Where journalists cover social/health/natural science research they often fail in even basic fact checking

To evidence this particular claim I referred to a recent piece in the New Scientist about the female orgasm and six things science has revealed about it. Which suggested the New Scientist don’t understand contemporary research on female sexuality, but are very happy to promote poor studies on sexual behaviour that often has links to drug companies or are just very badly designed. The post above has links to all the poor coverage from the New Scientist and critical appraisals of the studies reported so you can see for yourself just how shoddy this coverage has been. The result for the public, of course, is misleading information about sex, relationships and how our bodies work. Again, you’ll see from the links above this can cause distress and dissatisfaction.

During the talk I mentioned one piece of research that studied twins using a questionnaire and concluded orgasmic dysfunction was genetically inherited. I questioned how you could measure genetic inheritance from a survey and one audience member rightly reminded me that comparing answers from identical and non identical twins would enable you to see if there was heritability (gleaned from more similar answers from the identical twins). This is a fair point, although I think you’ll find from the report of the survey it did not really measure what it claimed to at all.

Problem #5 – On many issues, health/science coverage appears completely uncritical but when it’s important to have a balanced account, you can be sure coverage will be VERY judgemental

All the previous examples indicate that fake formula, PR surveys and shoddy research are unquestioningly accepted by the media on a regular basis. However, there are occasions when the media become very critical and the example I used here was around the response to changes to sex education on the UK school curriculum suggested last October.

Following a consultation on the issue, and (unusually for the current government) reviewing the evidence base, it was agreed sex education needs to change (see link above for documentation on how this might work). This was in response to our rising STIs, teenage pregnancy and wider problems around children growing in a highly sexualised culture.

Sadly the majority of media coverage ran with hysterical headlines and coverage implying CHILDREN AS YOUNG AS FIVE TO GET SEX EDUCATION! Of course the response from the public was negative, with fearful parents worried their little ones would be given condoms or corrupted with adult concepts of sexual behaviour. You can’t blame parents for being worried. But the truth is young children won’t be taught about condoms, they’ll be taught about relationships and confidence and emotional awareness. As they grow they’ll be prepared for puberty and learn about relationships, pleasure, sexuality, contraception and STIs. It was as though the media here deliberately wanted us to be afraid of something they knew full well wasn’t going to happen. When it comes to sex education and sexual health they do it all the time.

The only exceptions I’ve noted are The Mirror, who have attempted some balance on this issue and ITV’s This Morning whose agony aunt Denise Robertson has kept this issue on the agenda and reassured parents about the need for sex ed – and how to do it.

[After last night a few people asked me for further references about sex education and young people, so you may be interested in these blogs:
Fifteen tips for talking to your kids about sex

A critical take on delivering sex education (with a link on what to say to your kids at different ages)

Helping parents become sex education experts

Problem #6 – The rise of the ‘fakexpert’ and the ‘sexpert’

The media currently relies heavily on ‘experts’ to stack up stories. Usually psychologists (or people pretending to be psychologists) folk are wheeled on to give quotes, analyse celebrities or make general judgements. In return for a plug for their book/website/product.

My colleague Gary Wood has written two excellent summaries about this practice in his blog Psycentral
Celebrity Body Language: fact or flim flam?
Gender, Cave People and an Apology for Psychology

I’ve also written a guide on how to identify an expert (and what they can/can’t do in the media) for PressWise

During my talk I complained about the problem of ‘sexperts’ in the media. Unqualified people who give sex advice. I wrote about this a few years ago in The Guardian – Beware the Sexperts, as well as some more in depth academic papers on this – both opinion pieces and ethnographic studies of my experience working as an agony aunt/sex columnist in the mainstream media. (If you can’t access the papers below and would like them please email me):
Advice for Sex Advisors: a guide for ‘agony aunts’, relationship therapists and sex educators who work with the media Sex Education (2007) Vol.7 (3) ps: 309-326

Understanding media coverage of sex: a practical discussion paper for sexologists and journalists
Sexual and Relationship Therapy (2006) Vol.21 (3) ps:333-346.

Whatever happened to Cathy and Claire? Sex, advice and the role of the Agony Aunt (book chapter in Mainstreaming Sex edited by Feona Attwood).

Problem #7 – Media training for scientists and journalists is polarized and outdated

So we’re pitted against each other, have our training in isolation, and do not learn from each other. I’ve been trying to implement more training that brings journalists and academics together, along with archiving resources for journalists and training for journalists that lets them know what scientists’ working practice is really like. I have ongoing issues about media training for academics which seems to operate on training you to write press releases or present your research findings – when the modern media wants you to speak generally about your area of working practice in ways you’re rarely prepared for. I’d welcome further discussions on how we might improve this.

Problem #8 – We pitch our criticisms at the wrong level

There’s a tendency to pick on individual journalists or just blame ‘journalists’ generally for bad media coverage of science/health. The problem lies with editors, publishers and production companies. It is about economics and unspoken prejudices. We need to think of more effective ways to highlight poor practice but take the fight to those who hold the power. Most journalists are stuck having to deliver poor coverage because they’re told to do it and won’t be paid if they don’t. Bullying is rife in media (something journalists have in common with academics, sadly). I’m not saying we shouldn’t criticise poor practice, but I do feel we need to find ways to work more collaboratively together.

Finally, it’s very easy to highlight bad practice, but we don’t do half as well as praising good media coverage of science/health. So I’d like to see more efforts made to do this.

And not to forget the small things. The problems I’ve highlighted are often those related to surveys, ‘soft science’ and sex – things we treat as a joke or ignore. We can’t afford to let this sloppy coverage go as it’s all part and parcel of generally low standards. And whether it’s a cancer scare story, misreporting MMR, or a sexpert telling you something incorrect about your sexual health – it’s all harming the public.

If you’ve any questions about the event last night please let me know. I’ll add further links/updates as other bloggers report on this.

And thanks to those who turned up. I thought it was a great night with amazing talks from Ben and Vaughan. Shame hardly anyone from the WCSJ showed, but here’s hoping we can disseminate the audio from the event with journalists and encourage wider discussion.

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