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Hacks v Lab-Rats: who's at fault for consumer confusion?

Related tags Nutrition

The relationship between journalist 'hack' and scientist 'lab-rat'
must be developed if science is to get a fair deal in the press,
and for consumers to be presented balanced and accurate science

However, this is not the case at the moment with everyman and his dog getting in on the act and offering opinion, and as the debate expands the niceties recede.

On the surface the story seems to be about scientists blaming journalists for bad reporting and scare mongering, a sort of media conspiracy against science. Three weeks ago, ABC World News Tonight reported that dietary supplements posed dangers to kids. As could be expected, the US dietary supplements industry was none too pleased.

Last week the Society of Women's Health Research met in Washington DC to try to limit the damage of the media 'sound-bites' of the WHI studies into vitamin D/calcium and bone health.

But the debate goes back further. In March the UK independent think-tank, the Social Market Foundation, accused the British media of sensationalizing science. In April, the American Dietetic Association released a statement entitled "Food and Nutrition Misinformation" advising journalists how better to report on nutrition studies.

Enough already! My position may make me a little more sensitive to the debate since I come from a scientific background, and now work as a journalist. I can understand the journalistic need for interesting and readable science stories, but to blame journalists for 'sensationalising science' is a bit much.

There are two sides to every argument, and this month, The Royal Society turned the focus when it published a report telling scientists to consider public interest when they communicate their results.

Take the WHI studies as an example. The main result, if you read the abstract, is that vitamin D and calcium supplements had a 'small but significant' benefit in hipbone density. Read the paper in a little more detail, and you find that women who actually took 80 per cent or more of the supplements had a much more significant increase in hipbone density. Who is to blame for the public confusion here - the journalist reporting from the abstract, or the scientists for burying the real results?

Take also the ABC report, which did not ease fears that the media were "out to get" the supplements industry. But who gave opinion in the report? Scientists, medical physicians - so-called experts.

Take also the recent omega-3 review that reported the fatty acids had no effect on mortality, heart disease or cancer. After a series of reports in trade and mainstream press, the scientists went into damage control and released a statement saying: "We did not report that 'long chain omega-3 does not offer any protection from heart disease,' that 'omega-3 fats have no effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events, or cancer' or that omega-3 fats are of 'no benefit'.

What they did write in the BMJ was, "Long chain and shorter chain omega 3 fats do not have a clear effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events, or cancer."

I am going to be bold and ask what's the difference between these statements?

If you go to the BMJ website and check out the feedback about this study you will find numerous comments from scientists (who I have no doubt have read the review) questioning, and in some instances refuting, the methodology and subsequent results.

To publish research that fosters debate is a healthy part of science, and in this way we expand our understanding and open new avenues of study. But to get a bit of flak for your research and to react by blaming journalists is not the way to go.

The situation is clear. We need to stop blaming and shaming. Scientists and journalists need to work together. Will we get this? Hopefully, but probably not. With the number of websites and television channels steadily growing, there will always be outlets for poor journalism and conspiracy theories.

But for each side to continue to sling mud at the other is not going to solve the problem. Both must accept a burden of responsibility that comes with accurate, impartial reporting of science.

The Social Market Foundation report called for more science graduates to be encouraged to enter the media and for universities to offer a multidisciplinary approach to science education. The Royal Society called for scientists to accurately consider the potential public implications of their research, and to consider the timing and nature of communicating their results to the public.

As the public understanding of science increases, they will begin to trust certain news sources more than others. It is then up to those of us who pride ourselves on informing rather than misinforming to continue to make our voices heard.

Stephen Daniells is the Food Science Reporter for NutraIngredients.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.

If you would like to comment on this article please contact Stephen Daniells​.

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