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Interview: Dr Sinead Rhodes (University of Strathclyde) YAS Project - Research the Headlines…
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YAS Projects - Research the Headlines
Research the Headlines is a project set up by the Young Academy of Scotland to improve the general public's understanding of research, and improve communication between researchers and the media. To achieve its aims, it publishes a blog which highlights both good and bad reporting and encourages people to dig deeper into the facts. Sometimes, the blog also publishes stories the mainstream media seem to have missed...
If you believe everything you read in the papers, then cancer is cured every day, scientists discover genes for everything under the Sun and there are aliens living on comets.
Every day, the media are full of sensational news about the latest scientific research: “Chocolate makes you live longer, red meat causes cancer, avocados are fattening, Alzheimer’s disease is infectious, magnets make you less superstitious, people with tattoos are more rebellious, wine is good for you, etc.” Sometimes, there is good news and bad news together: Google may be ruining our memories but eating grapes may prevent memory loss.
Many people take such dramatic announcements with a large pinch of salt, but misleading headlines can do lots of damage to the research community as well as the press, not only by misrepresenting research but by encouraging a cynical view of reporting of science in general. Some members of the media may even have biased agendas which they wish to promote – e.g., their views on climate change – or be more willing to sensationalise in the race for greater audience figures, promoting urban myths and conspiracy theories. And when this affects vulnerable people or government policy, “bad science” can be dangerous as well as very costly.
The media are not to blame for everything, however. Researchers can present their findings badly, or simply do bad research. Communications consultants and press offices can also distort what their clients are trying to say, so the media end up repeating – and sometimes amplifying – the errors.
These are just a few of the issues discussed in a blog called Research the Headlines set up by a diverse group of researchers from the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) just over two years ago. The original aim was to use the blog as a platform to educate the general public about how research is reported, at the same time as to improve communication between researchers and reporters, with the motto, “don’t stop at the headlines.” And the idea has blossomed since then. The blog's success is evident from its recent selection as one of ten finalists in the UK Blog Awards 2016, with the winners to be announced in April at a London awards ceremony.
“Everyone should take responsibility,” says Dr Sinead Rhodes, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychological Sciences and Health at the University of Strathclyde, founder and co-chair of Research the Headlines. “We all have an equal interest in improving the presentation of science and ultimately people’s understanding of science.”
Rhodes and her team are also quick to praise good reporting – when it’s accurate and educates people on issues which matter. “Things may get lost in translation,” says Rhodes, “but if you search the media, lots of good research gets excellent coverage.”
The idea of Research the Headlines is not to knock the media or anyone else, Rhodes explains. “When we pick up a paper or read stories online, we hope that the reporting is fair and accurate. Many times it is, but sometimes the reporter, the press officer or even the researcher can get it wrong,” Rhodes wrote in The Herald last year. Let’s not forget, she adds, that very few reporters have been trained as researchers.
Another problem is when “scientific research” has no evidence to back it, or when the study is poorly conducted – e.g., the sample is too small or biased. One example of this is the headline, ”Two minutes exercise will stop ageing,” which appeared on the front page of a newspaper last year, based on a study conducted with 12 participants. Dr Alan Gow, an Associate Professor in Psychology in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University and co-chair of Research the Headlines alongside Rhodes, blogged about that very coverage. Gow notes: “This was a front-page splash, and many would be forgiven for thinking that position necessarily denotes a strong and robust study methodology. The headline leaves no room for doubt either; it didn’t say ‘two minutes exercise might be good,’ or ‘better than nothing,’ it said this ‘will stop ageing.’ Sadly, this seemed to be a case of an over-zealous press release, and the research paper actually showed no benefit for the intervention reported versus a control group.”
Sometimes, says Rhodes, there is actually little or no research study behind the news item, and efforts to trace the evidence lead to an opinion in a book or similar article, not a proper scientific study.
“It's all about miscommunication,” says Rhodes, whose introduction to the media eight years ago was a lesson she'll never forget. Rhodes had published two separate papers describing her research on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a parallel study in the use of stimulant medication (Ritalin) to treat ADHD. One month later, a journalist then wrote a story based on the two papers published by Rhodes, making a misleading connection between them, but Rhodes was unaware of this until a few months later. “My main concern was that the story had misrepresented my findings,” says Rhodes, “but I was also surprised at the process – how long it took for the story to get in the paper, and the fact that I had not been asked for a comment.” This experience persuaded Rhodes to join a committee set up by the British Psychological Society to liaise between researchers and the media, and later she became Press Officer for the Society – a stepping stone towards Research the Headlines.
How the project took off
Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to help the media, researchers and the general public “have a better feel for how well findings are represented, or highlight examples that might not justify the coverage.” Rhodes also says the group was inspired by the NHS health blog Behind the Headlines and wanted to broaden the scope of the project by capitalising on the multi-disciplinary skills of YAS members. Another inspiration was Sense About Science, a charitable trust which sets out to help people “make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion.”
The original title for the YAS project was “media relations,” but Rhodes and her team felt that this would send out the wrong message, because their intention was not just to help the researchers but also the press and the public.
About 30–35 YAS members have been involved with the project since it started, but anyone can make a contribution to the blog, which is updated about twice a week. Rhodes herself has written a number of posts on her specialist subject, cognitive functions in children, asking, for example, whether dummies delay babies' speech or if iPads are bad for young children.
In the process of addressing the media issues, the project also helps with general research education by giving helpful pointers on the basics of various subjects including statistics, e.g., how to assess what risk means and the difference between correlation and causation. This means the project may be greater than the sum of its parts, because it encourages people to be more enquiring and learn more about general science and health. “We talk about how research is presented,” says Rhodes, “and to some degree, this stimulates interest in science in general.” Gow adds: “We know many of our readers will not have had previous training in research, so for them, general tools for interrogating research being reported in the media might be as useful as providing additional details on some specific topic.” The ‘How To’ series produced by the group is often referred to in its more regular posts, highlighting the simple but recurring issues in research as reported in the media, and explaining how to weigh the evidence and how research is conducted.
For Rhodes and her colleagues, it’s also important to point out that their work will not be the last word on science or media issues. They also have to practise what they preach. “We can never be fully objective,” says Rhodes. “We try to stick to general principles and if we express an opinion, we make clear it is an opinion, rather than a view based on the scientific evidence.” After all, adds Gow, the group wouldn’t want to break one of its own How To tips: “Exaggeration and opinion versus research evidence.”
Miscommunication may be the heart of the problem, but sometimes truly “sensational” stories can slip through the media net, and this is dealt with in a section called ‘Under the Radar’ Another useful section is the blog’s ‘How To’ guides, explaining how to weigh the evidence and how research is conducted.
Rewrite the Headlines
Out of the initial project, another idea emerged – Rewrite the Headlines. Funded by the British Academy and the University of Strathclyde, this was a competition run by Rhodes and Gow. Primary schools across Scotland were invited to take part, and over 5,000 pupils from 95 schools were registered. Research the Headlines contributors, other YAS members and university colleagues then visited many of the schools to run workshops with the children, and where the group couldn’t get to a school, materials including a short video were provided so the school could host its own workshop. The plan behind the workshops was to “explore what research is, where it comes from and why understanding new findings might be important, before showing how those often specialist descriptions are translated into news stories.”
After a workshop with a YAS member or teachers using the group's materials, the pupils do three things:
1. Find a story
2. Rewrite the headline
3. Explain the thinking behind their new headline
Most pupils soon discover how hard it is to “rewrite the headlines.” How can you be concise and accurate and also be punchy? The tendency is to write much longer headlines, says Rhodes, because it is hard to include all the relevant facts.
For example, one headline suggested: “Chocolate is good for you – official.” One pupil rewrote this to say: “Chocolate is good for you but only if you eat a wee bit.” But above all, says Rhodes, the message to the pupils is always “don't stop at the headlines” – read the whole story, look for clues and check the source of the story, then find out more and make up your own mind.
Rhodes believes it's important to reach out to children as soon as they start to read about science in the media, and has found that children as young as nine are already aware of research. Rhodes is also keen to stress that the group draws attention to good reporting as well as inaccuracies, whether from researchers or the media, so people can “evaluate the research evidence that will affect their lives.”
While the primary school workshops focus on headlines, and going beyond them, the competition also included a stream for undergraduate students. Their task was to find a media report on some recent research, and write their own blog “highlighting the good, bad and (if necessary) ugly,” comparing this with the original published research. Gow explains: “We know our students have the necessary skills in critically evaluating research, and we want to let them showcase those skills with this new competition. We feel it’s also important to remind them that their skills can and should extend beyond their coursework; they need to remember to use those skills in continuing to question the information presented to them, no matter what context that’s in, and become critical consumers of it.”
As with the blog, the competition is careful to not be another exercise in “bashing the media” from the comfort of an academic ivory tower. Both Rhodes and Gow note that a balanced approach is required, especially when the report or the research completely misses the mark, because this ensures a dialogue between researchers, the media and the public in general.
Gow adds: “We know that the media reporting of research can often be very good, but there are also a number of potential weak points in the process where inaccuracies sneak in. Discussing those weak points and known pitfalls in as constructive a manner as possible will hopefully produce the most benefit.”
The winning primary school class was from St Roch's Primary and Hearing Impaired School in Glasgow, who turned the recent headline Processed meats do cause cancer – WHO, into Eating processed meat slightly increases risk of cancer. Abbey Wrathall won the undergraduate prize with her blog entry, So, should you wait until Monday to take your child to hospital? In her post, the University of Edinburgh student discussed recent media stories about whether "weekend versus weekday" hospital admissions might be associated with poorer outcomes.
Future plans include engaging children in the final year of primary school with a broader set of tips on how to research the headlines, and getting their parents involved, as well as focusing on several specialist subjects such as mental health, chronic health and genetics. The YAS team has applied for additional funding, with an emphasis on health education – e.g. diabetes and depression, nutrition and exercise.
“Reaching out more to the eldest of the primary school children we are currently engaging with (aged 11–12), interacting with parents and giving everyone 'homework' would greatly extend what we're doing,” says Rhodes. The idea is for parents to sit down with their children and ask a series of pertinent questions relating to media stories:
1 Does the article feature another independent opinion?
2 Does it cite the original paper?
3 Has it quoted the researcher?
As Rhodes points out, the researcher may not even know that the story has ever appeared, as she learned from her personal experience.
The original vision of Research the Headlines was to focus on writing the blog, but the team didn't want to “get stuck in retweeting,” so the project has gradually shifted its emphasis so that more people are engaged online as well as face to face. Page views have meanwhile increased to about 400 hits a day, and Rhodes attributes this partly to being so active in schools. In addition, the NHS Behind the Headlines team now name and link to the Research the Headlines website as one of the “Editor’s pick of the blogs” on their own health blog posts.
One day, Rhodes and her team will stand down from their YAS roles, but she is determined to make sure the project continues. And what is her advice to any student or parent who wants to know more about science? “Ask for evidence,” she answers. “Go beyond the headlines – read the full story and look for clues to evaluate it.”
For more details, please go to http://researchtheheadlines.org or follow the blog @ResTheHeadlines on Twitter.
Don’t stop at the headlines
Research the Headlines (http://researchtheheadlines.org) publishes posts on a wide range of topics, drawing attention to bad research and bad reporting – and the problem of writing a story or headline which captures attention as well as the truth.
Making a meal of it
After the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked processed meat as Group 1 carcinogenic, in the same category as smoking, the media made a meal of it and “vegetarians around the world felt redeemed,” cancer researcher Marcos Vidal wrote in Research the Headlines. But this does not mean that processed meat is equally dangerous, Vidal explained. “Smoking accounts for the deaths of one million people per year worldwide, while about 34,000 deaths could be attributed to diets high in processed meat.” In addition, wrote Vidal, people could became so tired of hearing that so many factors are carcinogenic that they might choose to ignore this information altogether.
“People with tattoos are more likely to be aggressive,” a recent headline in The Telegraph suggested. In Research the Headlines, Alan Gow explained that the recent research had concluded that more rebellious people “may respond to disappointing and frustrating events by getting tattooed.” They also said tattoos may signify defiance or dissent, or express anger. But the researchers also noted that knowing if someone has tattoos does not necessarily help you predict how aggressive the person may be, or vice-versa. And the content of the tattoo may also be a clue.
The media reporting was generally accurate, said Gow, but it would be misleading to suggest that people with tattoos are angry rebels: “Tattooing might be associated with those traits at a group level (albeit in a very small way), but it’s not predictive of an individual’s likely behaviour.”
“Could your views on God and immigration be changed by using magnets?” MailOnline asked readers. “Psychologists have discovered it’s possible to significantly change a person’s beliefs simply by targeting their brain with magnets,” the article continued. “People subjected to this treatment reported that their belief in God dropped by a third, while there was an increase in positive feelings towards immigrants.” YAS member Gavin Buckingham then took a look at the journal which published the original research to see how accurate the story was, and discovered that the problem was the research itself. He concluded: “No comparison of the treatment and control groups’ religious or political ideologies prior to treatment is given in the paper, and each group only contained 19 individuals. With such small numbers, it would only take one or two more ‘extreme’ individuals being randomly allocated to the treatment group to make such a difference.”
Examining the differences before and after the treatment would also have been more convincing, said Buckingham, who also pointed out MailOnline was “not too far off base” in its reporting and included many quotes from the authors, plus relevant graphs from the journal.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, The Express wrote: “A bizarre experiment claims to be able to make Christians no longer believe in God and make Britons open their arms to migrants, in experiments some may find a threat to their values.” Buckingham commented: “As far as I’m concerned, such overly-editorialised nonsense has no place in science reporting, diminishing public trust in basic science and generating unnecessary hysteria.”
The media love to write about “superfoods” and love it even more when research seems to question their superfood status – e.g., when the Daily Mail published the headline: “Are avocados a superfood… or just superfattening?” Even though the article refers to the “high fat content of avocados,” it is also highly positive about the health benefits of avocados, explaining that the monosaturated fats in avocados are considered to be “good fats” – it’s the headline which “could be considered misleading, or certainly very selective,” wrote Sinead Rhodes in Research the Headlines. The article also emphasises the healthy role of avocados and similar foods while stressing caution about eating too many. Another headline suggested that “salmon could be worse for you than a margharita pizza because of high fat content,” without mentioning the similar “good fats” in salmon.
Under the radar
Research the Headlines has a section called ‘Under the Radar,’ which recently highlighted a truly “sensational” story published on the Cornell University arXiv server, which revealed that Chinese scientists have been operating a robotic telescope on the Moon for the last 18 months, after its delivery on board China’s first lunar lander, taking advantage of conditions on the Moon to observe the sky in greater detail than is possible closer to home. Because the story had been missed by mainstream media, YAS member Dr Duncan Forgan, a Research Fellow in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of St Andrews, and a regular contributor to Research the Headlines, wrote: “It’s not very often that I’m utterly gobsmacked when I read the day’s latest physics and astronomy articles, but today I was, thanks to one rather unassuming paper, which hasn’t quite yet made a splash on the news networks.”