How the Media Sensationalizes Science

By the time the results of scientific research hit the mainstream media, some facts are often lost in translation. Ask Science explains how to interpret scientific research results.

Lee Falin, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #6

How the Media Sensationalizes Science

Every once and a while, news will break about an amazing new scientific discovery with promise of making us all live longer, happier lives. Unfortunately those announcements are often just sensationalized versions of a much more conservative or specialized research study.

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For example, a few days ago I saw a few headlines on prominent news sites that cited a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. The headlines claimed that researchers had discovered that drinking coffee makes you live longer. This story was even repeated by some major news outlets.

What these media outlets failed to report was that the actual claims of the research were much more limited. The study only included individuals who had already lived to at least 50 years of age, had no history of cancer, heart disease, or stroke, and didn’t smoke.

Other import things left out of this study were whether or not participants had access to adequate health care, their socio-economic status, cholesterol levels, and their family history of heart disease and cancer. All of which are important risk factors.

However, both the research paper and the journal’s editor pointed out these limitations and advised caution in the interpretation of the results. So how did a research article with so many caveats and limitations get reported as such sensational news?

Research Papers

The least flattering answer is that sensationalism sells. Fewer people would be interested in a headline like “Drinking coffee might possibly make you live longer in some cases if you’re not already sick, go to the doctor regularly, eat right, exercise daily, and have no family history of major illness.” That doesn’t really roll off the tongue as well as “Drink coffee, live to a 100!”

However, a more likely possibility is that research findings are often hard to interpret unless you are already familiar with the history of research and terminology used in a particular field. This is compounded by the fact that most people don’t actually read the entire research paper, focusing on just the abstract.

Most scientific papers are written in a similar format:

  1. An Introductory or Background section highlights relevant prior research in the field, as well as which of the still remaining mysteries is going to be addressed by the paper.

  2. A Methods section describes the details of how the research was carried out.

  3. The Results section explains what the results were.

  4. The Discussion and Conclusion sections discuss the results in light of what is already known on the topic and (in well-written papers) identify any potential shortcomings of the research.

  5. An Abstract or Summary section summarizes highlights of each section.

The fact that most people only read the abstract is exacerbated by the fact that most journals only make the abstract publically available, reserving the rest of the research for paid subscribers. Exceptions to this are open-access journals, where the entire contents of the research are available for anyone to view, free of charge.

Quick and Dirty Tips for Understanding Research Papers

If you need to report on research but don’t have access to the journal where it was published, you can often contact the authors directly for details on the research. Be careful to ask them about any possible limitations there might be on the interpretation of the results.

If you do have access to the entire paper, but feel your eyes start to glaze over when you see terms like p-values, protocols, and confidence intervals, try reading the Introduction section and then skip down to the Discussion section. Often the authors will summarize the rest of the paper in the Discussion in a way that is easier to understand.

If you come across something that you don’t understand, don’t hesitate to ask questions. Like most people, scientists are busy, but are usually happy to answer questions from people who are interested in their research.

Finally, don’t assume that just because something is printed in a scientific journal, it is absolutely true and etched in stone forevermore. Plenty of things printed in even the most reputable journals have later been shown to be not true, not reproducible, or less conclusive than previously thought.

This is particularly true in epidemiological studies (research that looks at health, disease, and things that influence health and disease), because there are so many variables (sometimes called confounding factors) that are difficult to account for.

For example research on red wine goes back and forth in the media every few years as either being good for you or bad for you. It’s even been involved in a scandal involving falsified data.

Hopefully these tips will help you to avoid being caught up in the hysteria of sensationalized science.  And remember: News reporters and editors are not scientists. They might only read the abstract and infer from there. Just because something is reported by the media, does not make it absolutely true. Just ask Nutrition Diva about her uphill battle to qualify the results of recent studies on red meat.

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Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.