Health and Medical News and Resources

General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

What the ‘limits of DNA’ story reveals about the challenges of science journalism in the ‘big data’ age

This journalist ends her post by acknowledging that the medical news readership often bases their decisions on medical and science news articles. She and others strive to report based on sound science, despite current obstacles.

Excerpts from the 6 April 2012 blog post at The Last Word on Nothing

As a science journalist, I sympathize with book reviewers who wrestle with the question of whether to write negative reviews. It seems a waste of time to write about a dog of a book when there are so many other worthy ones; but readers deserve to know if Oprah is touting a real stinker.
On 2 April, Science Translational Medicine published a study on DNA’s shortcomings in predicting disease. My editors and I had decided not to cover the study last week after we saw it in the journal’s embargoed press packet, because my sources offered heavy critiques of its methods..

…I ended up writing about the paper anyway after it made a huge media splash that prompted fury among geneticists. In a thoughtful post at the Knight Science Journalism tracker, Paul Raeburn asked yesterday why other reporters didn’t notice the problems with the study that I wrote about. Having been burned by my own share of splashy papers that go bust, I think the “limits of DNA “ story underscores a few broader issues for our work as science journalists:
1. Science consists of more and more “big data” studies whose findings depend on statistical methods that few of us reporters can understand on our own. I never would have detected the statistical problems with the Vogelstein paper by myself. We can look for certain red flags that a study might not be up to snuff, such as small sample sizes or weak clinical trial designs, but it’s a lot harder to sniff out potential problems with complicated statistical methods.

2. Challenges in the news business are ratcheting up pressure on all of us. Reporters are doing much more work in much less time than we have in the past as we compete with an expanded universe of news providers who have sped up the news cycle. Yet it still takes time and effort to make sense of the developments we cover. It took me about three days to report my piece on the Vogelstein paper while I was simultaneously working on other assignments. That’s probably longer than most reporters can spend on a piece like this…

The article goes on to point out other challenges as

4. It’s becoming more difficult to trust traditional scientific authorities.

5. Beware the deceptively simple storyline.

6. Getting the story right matters more than ever.

Related Resources

April 10, 2012 - Posted by | Finding Aids/Directories, Medical and Health Research News | , ,

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