There's nothing like a good, eye-catching headline. Such as 'Facebook causes cancer'. If that were true it would be pretty alarming. Fortunately, it's not.
This story is just one of many examples when the national press (on this occasion the Daily Mail) has taken a recent piece of scientific research and chosen to ignore important elements or exaggerate the research findings to help sell newspapers.
Here are some other examples of bad tech journalism, together with the culprits:
- Facebook and MySpace generation 'cannot form relationships' (Telegraph.co.uk)
- Emails 'hurt IQ more than pot' (CNN.com)
- Computer games stunt teen brains (Guardian.co.uk)
- Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values, scientists warn (Telegraph.co.uk)
Without exception, these headlines stemmed from unpublished research that was misreported in the national press.
Revenge of the nerds
A couple of nights ago three British scientists, each highly respected in their own field of expertise, gave talks to a group of several hundred journalists, scientists and academics. These three self-proclaimed 'nerds' each gave a talk lasting around 45 minutes on topics including the misuse of surveys and research by PR companies and scientists' work being misrepresented when it's reported in the media.
But of most interest to us here in PC Advisor Towers was Vaughan Bell's talk entitled 'Technology Scares and the Media'. Vaughan is a neuropsychology researcher and clinician, dealing with disorders of the mind and brain, and his particular bugbear concerns the media's willingness to tell us that new technology will give us brain damage and mental illness, whilst being strangely adverse to discussing the research - even when the science says there's not a lot to be worried about.
Bizarrely, the day before the event happened, Independent science editor Steve Connor decided to post an opinion article slagging off the three speakers. This didn't go down well in the blogosphere, principally because Connor referred to the event in the past tense (it wasn't even taking place until the day after he wrote his piece), and also because he managed to get a number of facts wrong. They were all facts that he could have checked with a quick search online. He showed himself up as being guilty of precisely what the speakers were airing their grievances about - that science journalists are reluctant (or too lazy, or too busy) to check facts before going to press.
The organisers of the Troublemaker's Fringe meeting weren't sure that anyone would turn up - they'd only announced the event a week earlier. In fact, Connor's article probably helped push the numbers up. Steve Connor is undoubtedly a well-respected science editor. It's unfortunate that he got this piece so appallingly wrong. As Ben Goldacre points out on his Bad Science website, Connor is a very angry man.
For years it's been apparent that the national press cherry-picks conclusions from serious scientific studies in order to generate eye-catching, scare-mongering and sometimes simply misleading headlines to help boost sales of their ailing print titles. My concern is not that journalists are too lazy to check the facts before posting a story, or even that they might glamourise research findings to help create a more catchy title. My concern is that if enough news outlets publish enough inaccurate reports that claim iPhones make you blind (for example), then everyone might just start to think it's actually true.
But then, if it helps sell newspapers, or helps to get your news story to the top of the Google searches, then it brings in revenue. And who's going to argue with that at the moment?