Who is to Blame for Bad Health Journalism?

bog roll

Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, has been complaining that blogs are not real journalism. She appears to be upset that bloggers are supposedly claiming to be better than journalists and that such sentiment might undermine the fragile existence of science journalism in the media. Comments quickly filled her article suggesting blogs are journalism and that she is confusing a technology medium with an approach to writing – a theme picked up by the blog, LayScience.  

I must admit, I am not entirely convinced by an ontological objection to Fox and claiming that, in particular, blogging is just about the medium. Fox makes it clear that journalistic writing should be “balanced, fact-checked, sub-edited and all those other peculiarities of good journalism”. In this definition, journalism takes place within a very particular context that is absent from blogs. Blog writing, by contrast, is typically written with the sole authority of the blogger; they are personal, provisional and ephemeral, (and the best also also encourage participation, are connected and often emotional).  Bloggers would not claim to be offering a public record but might expect to be seen as authoritative within a certain context. Of course there are blurry lines, but just as not all times of day can be classified as day or night, that does not mean that day and night are not different things.

And, for me, this is where I would challenge Fox. There is much good journalism out there – but it can also be appalling, unreliable, contrived, fabricated and daft. The context of journalistic writing that is supposed to provide the balances, checks, and editing – the distinction that might afford them the credibility of being regarded as providing ‘public record’ – so often, quite obviously, fails.

This week, we were treated in the Daily Mail to an article declaring “Cancer danger of that night-time trip to the toilet”. The article claimed that  switching the light at night when you got up to take a piss could “trigger an ‘over-expression’ of cells linked to the formation of cancer.” It reported a paper from researchers in the UK and Israel that studies performed on mice had shown that “even short-term exposure can be linked to an increased risk of cancer.”

This is pretty typical Daily Mail reporting with its commitment to “divide all inanimate objects into ones that will either cause or cure cancer.” The paper reports one of the paper’s authors as saying that,

‘We believe that any turning on of artificial light in the night has an impact on the body clock. It’s a very sensitive mechanism.

‘If you want to get up to go to the toilet, you should avoid reaching for the light switch. There are some plug-in lights that just glow, that are safe and you could use them as an alternative.’

She added: ‘These latest findings are preliminary research and we are now looking into this area in more detail.’

So, where did this story come from? Normally, I would write this off as just the usual newspaper attempt to create a dramatic story from what is usually humdrum research.

But, a “Senior Web Communications Officer” from the University of Leicester wrote to me asking if I could ‘spread the word’ that one of their academics had been misrepresented by the Daily Mail. The University of Leicester were quick to issues a press release proclaiming that their academic had been misrepresented and that “There is no connection between illuminated, nocturnal calls of nature and cancer, despite what certain newspapers are claiming.”

I emailed back asking if he could shed any light on how the newspaper article came about. He replied that a press release from the University of Haifa had triggered the article and that he did not know where the quotes came from.

Now given the Haifa Press Release says quite clearly, “Just one “pulse” of artificial light at night disrupts circadian cell division… Damage to cell division is characteristic of cancer” the Daily Mail article does not look like a giant leap away from the story that Haifa PR was spinning. Going to the toilet at night is an obvious way of producing a ‘pulse of light’ at night. The original paper might not have mentioned trips to the loo, but the press release comes mightily close.

But what is even stranger is that the Leicester communications department did not tell me that they had too issued a press release about this paper. This release begins,

A new study from the University of Haifa and University of Leicester has found that just one "pulse" of artificial light at night disrupts the circadian mode of cell division – one of the body’s mechanisms that is damaged in the development of cancer.

It would appear that this is not a simple story of the distorting journalist trying to spin a science story into some ‘X gives you cancer’ nightmare. It would look as if both University PR departments must take some of the rap for over extending what the research was concluding.

There is, of course, large commercial pressure on Universities to attract new students and, one way to do this is to get your name in the papers via dramatic press releases. The newspapers too have commercial pressures to make their stories as powerful as possible. Many readers will not read an article about “light pulses administered during the circadian dark phase alter expression of cell cycle associated transcripts in mouse brain.” Fear will always sell.

And so why bloggers criticise newspaper journalists over such stories is that by exaggerating the significance of science results about health, readers’ trust in science as a source of good health advice is eroded. Bloggers might well report such stories in a more balanced way, but they do not have the authority of a daily paper. There is much good science reporting in newspapers, but the stories printed for shock impact value make it impossible to put any trust in what you read more generally. 

I am glad that blogs are not “real journalism”. The best ones out there are reliable, verifiable and consistent. These are qualities that we cannot depend upon within the world of newspaper journalism and the sources of their stories – so often, the PR departments of commercial interests.

14 comments for “Who is to Blame for Bad Health Journalism?

  1. April 16, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    Nice piece, and I do mostly agree. I will just reply to this bit:

    “Fox makes it clear that journalistic writing should be “balanced, fact-checked, sub-edited and all those other peculiarities of good journalism”. In this definition, journalism takes place within a very particular context that is absent from blogs.”

    We could probably argue definitions all day, but my point here would be this: what do you call the Guardian Science Blog, or the Times Science Blog? These are top blogs, which are edited. In the political blogosphere, there are many blogs now that have editing to some degree or other; less so in the UK but especially in the States.

    It kind of depends whether you accept that newspaper blogs are ‘real’ blogs. Your mileage may vary, but if so, then I think you have to accept that ‘real’ journalism of the sort that Fiona describes does take place on blogs. If not, it would be interesting to know why.

    • Le Canard Noir
      April 16, 2010 at 10:09 pm

      To make clear and extend my day/night analogy, I would say that the newspaper blogs are ‘twilight’.

      Grey areas exist. That does not mean all areas are grey or that all things are equivalent.

      • April 17, 2010 at 9:48 am

        It seems to be though that your definition is a bit circular. What is it about newspaper blogs that puts them into the twilight category?

        Is the fact that they’re run by mainstream media companies? Well, so are ScienceBlogs.

        Is it the fact that they’re hosted on an MSM company website? Well, so are the Discover blogs.

        Is it the fact that the authors are paid? Well, they’re not when guesting at The Times science blog, and the guys on ScienceBlogs are earning a regular income from advertising there.

        So there’s a danger that you’re basically saying all blogs are unedited, and any edited mainstream media ones are in another special category.

        Well, perhaps they can be considered a sub category, but my broader point is that from a writing perspective, there’s no such thing as blogging. There are various ways of writing – edited, unedited, journalism, opinion, whatever – and those are basically independent of where they’re hosted or on what sort of technology they’re based.

        That doesn’t mean I think all journalism/blogging is equivalent, it means that I don’t accept that there’s any such distinct writing style as ‘blogging’. Or if I were Bill Clinton I’d some this up as “it’s the writing, stupid!”

      • Le Canard Noir
        April 19, 2010 at 2:25 pm

        If you do not believe there is a distinct thing as ‘blogging’ then we are just going to have to disagree. I think I have made myself clear above.

        I do believe there is a distinct class of writing called ‘blogging’ and it is tightly bound to developments in technology. Of course, some blogging can take on journalistic qualities, just as some journalism can use the style and platform of a blog. There will be grey areas where some writing adopt characteristics of both.

        Where I would argue with Fox is that blogging is not such much a threat to journalism, insomuch as that journalism’s own abandonment of much of what made journalism important is. Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News springs to mind.

  2. April 16, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    What struck me from this article was how “blogging” vs “journalism” is a false dichotomy when trying to argue that one is a more reliable source of information than the other. Both encompass such a wide range that it’s not possible to say one is more reliable than the other with such a broad, unhelpful definition.

    For example, “journalism” encompasses such a wide range as includes tabloid sensationalism like the National Enquirer and the Sport, via red-top tabloids such as the Sun, through the Daily Mail to the Guardian, Telegraph, Times, FT and so on. It also encompasses specialist media, from the popular (e.g. New Scientist, Uncut, Chat Magazine) to the industry-only. Blogging encompasses a similar range, from, say, pro-homeopathy to this blog. It’s confused even further by the fact that newspapers run blogs. And some of those blog articles are written by journalists and some written by bloggers. How on earth is it helpful to draw the dividing line there?

    I would also suggest that whether “journalism” or “blogs” come off better in any comparison depends hugely on subject matter and context. In my opinion (and I stress, this is my opinion) science is better covered by blogs than journalism, whereas the arts and sports are better covered by journalism than blogs.

    The point is, why does it matter whether prose comes from blogging or journalism? Surely all that matters is whether it is reliable, fact-checked, verified, justified, etc.? There’s no guarantee of that from any article, whether you read it in a newspaper or on the internet, and the reader shouldn’t factor “is it journalism or blogging?” into their decision on the trustworthiness of an article.

    • Le Canard Noir
      April 16, 2010 at 10:42 pm

      I hope I am clear that there is good and bad writing on both sides. But it is not a false dichotomy. Journalism sets itself apart by claiming to adopt a certain set of standards – a set of standards design to make their writing reliable and a source of record. You can see the code of conduct from the National Union of Journalists here:

      http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=174

      A quick glance will reveal just how far short much journalism falls from this position. Were the NUJ to uphold their code, then we would have a very different journalistic landscape overnight.

  3. April 17, 2010 at 7:55 am

    I work for regional newspapers and I’ve had more than one press release saying that a researcher has done a study whose results say something shocking. It’s our job to check the press release matches what the study actually finds, and it’s staggering how many times it doesn’t – often it’s small things, language used to imply a more shocking result than has been found. It’s easy to take those press releases on face value, especially if you’re hurried with space to fill, or you know nothing about the subject and it sounds plausible. It’s still vital to fact check, because the PR people often don’t.

  4. Atropos
    April 17, 2010 at 10:25 am

    “Going to the toilet at night is an obvious way of producing a ‘pulse of light’ at night.”

    I think the problem here is an assumption by the original Mail article (and now yourself) about what ‘pulse’ means. If the whole press release, and the subsequent news blog release from Leicester (another blog!) are read carefully, it is clear that by ‘pulse’ the article means ‘one hour of light’. Perhaps the writer should have realised that the use of ‘pulse’ might confuse those who didn’t read carefully (and who reads press releases carefully?) but the term is not incorrect, per se.

    Staying with the ‘turning on the light to go to the toilet’ analogy, I feel that anyone spending an hour on the toilet at night (whether the light is on or not) probably has more to worry about than an “over-expression of cells”.

    • db
      April 19, 2010 at 7:24 pm

      This is just like quoting ‘bogus treatments’, but not quoting the next paragraph which explains what they are…

  5. April 17, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Andy – thanks for running with this, but I would like to clarify a couple of points, as the Senior Web Communications Officer in question.

    The Leicester press release and the Haifa press release are the same thing: the Leicester one has simply been topped and tailed with a short opening paragraph and some quotes from the Leicester researcher. However, you can see from the dates that the Haifa PR went out on 11th April while the Leicester one didn’t appear until the 13th. The Mail story is also dated 13th. In other words, the Mail story was based entirely on the short Haifa PR; the longer Leicester PR was issued after the Mail’s story.

    That’s why I didn’t mention that Leicester had issued a press release: because it is merely an extended version of the Haifa release and because it was issued after the story appeared in the press. (Also, FYI, I don’t work in the Press Office.)

    And I would like to stress that we didn’t “issue a press release” saying we had been misrepresented. There is clearly no point in sending a PR to the media to say that (parts of) the media are talking nonsense. What I did was post an item on our ‘Newsblog’, which is something I created in order to enable the University to get interesting stories out into the public domain in readable, accessible form without the two big disadvantages of press releases (the formality of presentation/structure, and the reliance on secondary distribution by the press). I think this emphasises your point that a ‘blog’ is simply a medium, not a style.

    I then sent the link to yourself and a couple of other leading science bloggers and let the internet do the rest. We can’t stop the Mail’s meme from spreading but we can at least get a countermeme out there.

  6. rob
    April 17, 2010 at 11:13 am

    I certainly agree with Michael and Martin’s points that the definitions are unclear and that it is impossible to divide blogs from journalism in terms of writing quality, reliability, etc. And apart from a bit of sabre rattling over territory, why bother?

    I think it is relevant to ask what and who the articles are *for*. In the case of the less serious end of the market – I am thinking Daily Mail, but it also applies to other papers and some blogs – I don’t think the purpose is really to inform at all; it is to titillate, to scare, to entertain, to give a frisson to the reader, but above all to attract (casual) readers. At the opposite extreme, academic papers don’t set out to attract readers other than the usually minuscule number of people who understand them (and their context). And probably in these terms both instances can be described as ‘high quality’ because they achieve the objectives as set by the publishers. Ask a cancer scientist what they think of the Daily Mail coverage of issues such as the one above, and ask an ordinary Joe on the street what they think of articles in Acta Oncologica and you may well get the same answer.

    The problem then comes down to a different argument, not one about the quality of science writing, or the qualifications /skill of science journalists, but one about the purpose and more especially the ethics of science writing. From ‘our’ point of view (I’m assuming that mostly scientists are reading this blog) the concern is that the vast majority of the population are receiving at least unreliable information. If that is about black holes and the LHC, well, no big deal. Most people will just read it, worry about the world ending for a moment or two then go back to worrying more about whether Rooney is fit for the world cup. (Well that’s what I do anyway). But if it’s about MMR jabs we have a totally different situation.

    The underlying problem is that humans like scare stories: whether horror movies or end of the world stories, or big bad pharma stories, or whatever. (It’s probably an evolutionary advantage to mull over the worst that can happen and get a bit prepared?) Liking scare stories sells papers. Nice simple stories sell papers.

  7. Io
    April 18, 2010 at 4:19 am

    I just wanted to mention a few things that make blogging better than traditional journalism.

    1. Science/medicine bloggers are often experts in their field. The probability that the information will be more accurate certainly increases without a mediator.

    2. Blogs are no longer individual sources of information; they function in networks. Bloggers can and do comment on the information provided in related blogs, which, again, is helpful. Comments work in a similar way – the reader must be discerning, but they can point out logical or factual mistakes or direct the reader to a valuable resource.

    3. Bloggers are free to publish whatever seems important to them; they are not require to edit or modify the content they provide according to reader demand or editorial policy.

  8. David Hamilton
    April 18, 2010 at 11:17 am

    As as been frequently pointed out, if a football reporter descended to the low standards of science journalists, thye woould not last long.

  9. Christine Michael
    April 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    I am a journalist and have no wish to defend inaccurate or biased reporting, wherever it is found. I don’t believe that blogs are journalism, simply because the blogging environment is so different from that of the professional journalist – by which I do not imply superiority, merely that a professional journalist is someone who earns their living by journalism.

    Journalists work within constraints that do not generally concern bloggers, for example:
    – deadlines
    – space constraints, either having too little or too much to report the story well
    – the input of other team members before publication
    – the requirement to provide new information, or a new angle on existing information
    – the requirement to write on topics beyond their comfort zone of expertise
    – the presence of competitors, for advertising revenue or readership share
    – above all, the requirement (which of course is not solely that of the individual journalist) to provide a publication for which people will pay. This means operating within the values of a clearly differentiated and consistently delivered brand.

    Unlike bloggers, professional journalists aren’t able to write as much or as little as they like, when they feel ready to, only about a subject they know very well, or to return to their favourite hobby horse or campaign whenever they wish.

    Now you may well say that these constraints are among the reasons why there is bad journalism of all kinds. You may also say that the print-publishing model that created these constraints is now being exposed as a dinosaur and that the sooner it disappears the better.

    But these are just my thoughts on why blogging, currently, is not the same as journalism.

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