May 24, 2024

Why newspapers publish ‘fake news’ about science

Articles reporting that old headlines are not true tend not to end up on the front page

Rage over fake news is the fashionable complaint in politics. How about science? An article in PLOS One by researchers at the University of Bordeaux, France exposes the deficiencies of much of science reporting. “Many biomedical findings reported by newspapers are disconfirmed by subsequent studies,” they write.

This happens because newspapers prefer to publish, um… news –developments which are novel or contradict the conventional wisdom. An article touting the medicinal benefits of say, asparagus extract, will always get front page billing. Subsequent research which fails to replicate this research will often go unreported. So the public is left believing that consuming huge quantities of asparagus will cure cancer, psoriasis and glaucoma.  

Furthermore, they observe, most journalists from the mainstream media prefer to ignore “the high degree of uncertainty inherent in early biomedical studies”. They suggest that “when preparing a report on a scientific study, journalists should always ask scientists whether it is an initial finding and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.”

Scientists, too, have “a moral duty” to ensure that press releases describing their work are accurate.
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