Health Science Reports is an international, open-access journal that publishes research and commentaries from across all medical and health sciences disciplines. The journal welcomes clinical studies, as well as reports on methods and research design, health services, public health, and medical education and practice.
Health Science Reports considers numerous publication types, such as original papers, reviews, methods papers, editorial articles, and commentaries. People around the world are becoming increasingly interested in news of clinical research that will help inform their health choices and improve their lives, as patients get more and more involved in decisions regarding their health care. The media is supposed to fill the gap that exists between the world of research and that of the general public; its job is to translate the findings into a language everyone can understand.
However, health-conscious consumers of news stories oftentimes find themselves having to choose between contradictory advice or basing their decisions on news that contain factual errors or report partial findings. Usually, the problem is not in how the original research is set up or conducted, but in how journalists are interpreting it and communicating it to their audiences.
Scientific news competes daily with a wide range of other types of news, so journalists feel the need to present them in a way that will capture the editor’s attention and create headlines that will sell. At the same time, hospitals, physicians, and commercial research institutions strive to get public attention. As a result, science is often sensationalized and portrayed in ways incompatible with its nature. When reporting on health research, reporters should focus on evidence instead of opinion, without forgetting that “not all evidence is created equal”.
In other words, just because a study has been published does not mean it was carried out with the required rigor, or that it took into account other intervening variables that may have led to the outcome and may be affecting the reliability of the research results. Besides, different types of studies provide evidence with different levels of strength. In addition, journalists must be aware of possible financial and non-financial conflicts of interest that could be influencing a study’s conclusions.
Furthermore, to communicate scientific findings science first needs to be put in context and it is necessary to keep in mind that reporting on a single and new study can often be misleading. Research must be situated within the larger body of literature and compared to other studies that use different methods and populations, taking into account that scientific truth exists in context relative to past discoveries that are continuously subject to revisions.
One way journalists can do this is by seeking out systematic reviews. A systematic review attempts to synthesize the best available research on a specific question after an exhaustive review of studies written on the same theme. The evidence selected in a systematic review meets pre-specified quality criteria that minimize bias, to produce more reliable findings that can be used to inform decision-making.
A trustworthy source of health-related systematic reviews is the Cochrane Library, an online collection of databases that brings together rigorous and updated research. Journalists should keep in mind that systematic reviews of randomized controlled clinical trials offer the strongest level of evidence when reporting research findings. To improve the way journalists interpret science to the public, they need to take into account the following.
First, that correlation between two events is not the same as causality; so a cause-and-effect relation should not be implied from their association. Second, that science often finds itself in the world of probabilities, instead of in the world of certainties. Finally, given that most medical news stem from scientific studies, reporters need to have background knowledge in the type of research studies, research methods, interpreting research results and analyzing systematic reviews, and they need to understand the difference between absolute and relative risks. These are a few elements that may help improve scientific coverage, but certainly not the only ones.
Healthcare reporting is not an easy task given the explosion of information about newly developing medical treatment, equipment, and procedures, superimposed upon ongoing problems with the delivery of basic health care. As journalists report on complex healthcare issues, they will do tremendous service if they filter their reports through ethical standards and provide insights to the public about ethical questions that must be raised.
Information intended to have an effect on public health, particularly on disease prevention and health promotion, should be as clear and complete as is necessary, although it does not have to be exhaustive. When complex issues are involved a balance has to be struck between adapting information to the public‘s ability to comprehend it and overloading it with detail. This is especially important in connection with the capacity of the public to balance benefit against risk when neither may be obvious and with the meaning of very low risk.
Expressions of concern about certain matters by members of the public should be treated with respect even if they are not perceived as being scientifically based. Conflicts may have to be resolved, between the right to privacy of the individual and the interests of society as a whole. Good journalists recognize the limitations of facts taken out of context and are aware of their potential for misinformation and harm and of the ethical shortcomings of communicating them.
Concealing or misrepresenting a context may take the form of failing to identify a research sponsor, for instance in the event of studies on lung cancer sponsored by the tobacco industry. Some people discontinue vital treatment. Assessments of harm and benefit may vary between members of the public, journalists, and doctors. Harm may result from a misinformed decision, as happened when the uptake of pertussis vaccination declined in the United Kingdom following unbalanced and inaccurate reporting of the associated risks. Journalists should try to anticipate the responses of their readerships and audiences, who should be informed about opposing views.
Communicating information about harm and benefit in such a way as to respect the autonomy of individuals and their right to make up their minds is ethically distinct from presenting it in a manner believed by a campaigning communicator to be beneficial. Sensationalism and scaremongering are not consistent with ethical principles. Where there is a risk of harm to the public, journalists should take the public‘s side.
Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that the problem with scientific news stories is not just a journalistic problem. Not only do health researchers eager to feature their stories often use appealing headlines that may not completely reflect the results of the study, but their investigations are generally too complex for the common reader. Researchers can contribute by working hand in hand with journalists to write a good press release that simplifies the information and interprets it in an adequate context and by providing a space for reporters to ask questions.