The media monitor

Timothy Caulfield Credit: © Creative Services, University of Alberta 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.

By | May 1, 2008

<figcaption>Timothy Caulfield Credit: © Creative Services, University of Alberta</figcaption>
Timothy Caulfield Credit: © Creative Services, University of Alberta

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."


Avatar of: Gordon Couger

Gordon Couger

Posts: 23

May 30, 2008

I suppose if pick the pieces reporting on science as those directly reporting on scientific papers you may be right. The over all tone of the press on science is defiantly one sided on genetic modification. With more negative reports than positive the exact reverse of the scientific findings. The same is true with climate change and environmentalism in general. The press sensationalizes the dark side of them both and give very little space to views that oppose the press's conventional thinking.\n\nThis one sided biases leads to laws that make the wrong choices too early in the process. Time and time again we choose the wrong path over sensational press. \n\nOur CO2 output would be much lower if Three Mile Island had been recognized as the total success it was emitting only a miniscule amount of radiation when it when into to total melt down in spite of all the errors made trying to shut it down. Instead it was seen as total failure of the DOE for the action of the a few individuals and a grand standing President. It turned us away form clean nuclear powered power plants to coal fired ones that put out more radioactive material than Three Mile island did ever year. The particulates from coal fired power plant have killed and sickened hundreds of thousands of people around the world far less than injured in all the nuclear accidents and bombs ever used.\n\nThe press may report accurately on science by your standards but the miss by a mile in the over all picture. \n\nThe wast from nuclear power plants is only a problem because the green lobby prevent an interim solution to safely storing them with lawsuit after lawsuit.\n\nGordon Couger\n
Avatar of: abc def

abc def

Posts: 7

June 2, 2008

Try to ask people, including many "scientists", which was the first mammal ever cloned. The answer will be almost certainly Dolly the sheep!\nSo, thanks to the media, the mouse lost it's place in science history ....

June 4, 2008

Media reshapes reality: true. That is not a problem but to scientists who think that they don´t. Public perception of scientific issues involves lots of factors, including ideology, culture and science literacy. People is not stupid. They (we) also choose what to read, to see, to consume, besides the marketing powerful machine. The ingenuity of some scientists sometimes astonishes me. Other times, I think they have a hidden agenda behind the appearence of pureness and objectivity. But may be I´m biased because I´m a Science reporter. \n

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