It’s never been easier to get life science and medical news, and the public has a roaring appetite for it. We are overwhelmingly exposed to health-related news and it can influence our thoughts and behavior instantaneously. And with each news story, journalists and media outlets run the risk of publicizing a faulty health-related story that turns into a dogmatic digital wildfire despite insufficient or conflicting evidence–a story told too often. Importantly, even major news outlets have been culpable of sensationalizing alleged scientific findings–see ‘Cocaine and heroin are less addictive than Oreos.’
These erroneous events occur because the cycles of journalism and science are not made for one another. Science is slow and evolving, requiring time for information to be contested. On the other hand, the current journalism news environment of daily to hourly news cycles rewards webpage visits–quantity not quality. Researchers may have weeks or months to structure their papers, which include complex statistical analyses, dense scientific jargon and detailed reporting of the methods and tools used. Journalists often have only hours to convey the findings. In the same way, some of the best science is often boring and incremental, not evocative and earth-shattering. Good science does not make for good journalism, so seemingly revolutionary health-related stories should be met with inquiry.
For this fundamental reason, news and medical science are as compatible as oil and water. As Dan Fagin, science journalist and director of New York University’s Science, health & environmental reporting program, stated: Science journalism’s ultimate loyalty, when practiced properly, is to the closest possible depiction of reality, period, and no other agendas should interfere with that.
There is no homogeneous solution.