The Journalist's Responsibility in Health Science Reporting

Given that published medical findings are, by the field’s own reckoning, more often wrong than right, a serious problem with health journalism is immediately apparent: A reporter who accurately reports findings is probably transmitting wrong findings. And because the media tend to pick the most exciting findings from journals to pass on to the public, they are in essence picking the worst of the worst. Health journalism, then, is largely based on a principle of survival of the wrongest. (Of course, I quote studies throughout this article to support my own assertions, including studies on the wrongness of other studies. Should these studies be trusted? Good luck in sorting that out! My advice: Look at the preponderance of evidence, and apply common sense liberally.)

What is a science journalist’s responsibility to openly question findings from highly credentialed scientists and trusted journals? There can only be one answer: The responsibility is large, and it clearly has been neglected. It’s not nearly enough to include in news reports the few mild qualifications attached to any study (“the study wasn’t large,” “the effect was modest,” “some subjects withdrew from the study partway through it”). Readers ought to be alerted, as a matter of course, to the fact that wrongness is embedded in the entire research system, and that few medical research findings ought to be considered completely reliable, regardless of the type of study, who conducted it, where it was published, or who says it’s a good study.

Worse still, health journalists are taking advantage of the wrongness problem. Presented with a range of conflicting findings for almost any interesting question, reporters are free to pick those that back up their preferred thesis—typically the exciting, controversial idea that their editors are counting on. When a reporter, for whatever reasons, wants to demonstrate that a particular type of diet works better than others—or that diets never work—there is a wealth of studies that will back him or her up, never mind all those other studies that have found exactly the opposite (or the studies can be mentioned, then explained away as “flawed”). For “balance,” just throw in a quote or two from a scientist whose opinion strays a bit from the thesis, then drown those quotes out with supportive quotes and more study findings.


If 2/3rds of research papers are wrong, then reporters are communicating bad and dangerous data to readers of their health news. Even worse, with conflicting research on different health issues, reporters are able to craft any thesis they like by cherry-picking for the journals.

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 ‘Survival of the wrongest’
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Freedman, David H. (January 2, 2013), ‘Survival of the wrongest’, Columbia Journalism Review, Retrieved on 2013-01-18
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: accuracy journalism veracity health news