Timothy Caulfield has spent years listening to scientists complain that the media does a poor job of explaining science. As research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, he has heard this so often, he says, that he started to believe it too. Finally, he decided to find out for himself.
Caulfield pored over the print media's coverage of genetic discoveries from around the English-speaking world and compiled a list of 627 newspaper articles reporting on 111 different scientific journal articles. Together with a team of coders, all of whom had scientific backgrounds, he compared the newspaper articles with the original journal studies for signs of technical errors or exaggerated claims of the research findings.
Contrary to perceived opinions, he found that only 11% of the media stories could be categorized as inaccurate or exaggerated ( Can Med Assoc J, 170:1399-407, 2004). "I was genuinely surprised that the media does a fairly good job of reporting genetic discoveries," says Caulfield. His results not only astonished him, they contradicted him: Years earlier, he had published an article in a law journal about how the inaccurate reporting of genetic research, a phenomenon he calls "genohype," was hurting the public's understanding of science. "You can tell I'm a law professor and not a scientist," he says, "because I wrote a long essay about genohype and only later went to do the study."
Caulfield stumbled across his latest project in 2006. He was studying policy reports relating to gene patenting, when he noticed that one patent in particular dominated nearly all discussion. That patent was filed by a small Salt Lake City-based biotech company called Myriad Genetics for the breast cancer-related genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2. Myriad's patents became infamous after the company sent cease-and-desist letters to agencies throughout the world stating that all tests for the BRCA mutations must be done through Myriad or one of its licensees. This action attracted much mass media attention - so much so, that Caulfield wondered to what extent the consumer media had shaped the public's perceptions of gene patenting.
Caulfield used a similar coding scheme to dissect 143 newspaper articles relating to the Myriad patents, this time coding them for the presence or absence of positional statements - either positive, such as highlighting benefits of patenting for innovation, or negative, including ethical or policy concerns. Caulfield concluded that articles about Myriad's patents were largely unbalanced and negative: 78% had a negative overall tone, and only 56% presented a variety of opinions ( Genet Med, 9:850-5, 2007).
"How the media covered the story kind of tracked public concern," says Caulfield. "Was it generating angst or reflecting it? Probably a little bit of both." He points to evidence from public opinion polls at the time: In the United Kingdom, a poll conducted for the Human Genetics Commission found that only 21% of people agreed that commercial companies should be able to profit from discoveries on human genetic material. In Canada, the percentage of the public with a negative opinion of gene patenting jumped from 37% to 46% in the two years following the Myriad controversy, according to government surveys.
"Tim [Caulfield] has done a very good job of bringing to bear the uncertainties of science," says Matthew Nisbet at American University in Washington, DC. "He's shown that the media doesn't just reflect the policy debate; it actively shapes it."