One of the side benefits of the Leveson Inquiry (UK phone hacking scandal) is the following guidelines for responsible science and health reporting. Also a good list for readers to use in assessing health and science journalism. The list:
- State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
- Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
- When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
- Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time frame for any new treatment or technology.
- On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – ie if “cupcakes double cancer risk” state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
- Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
- If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
- Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
- Remember patients: don’t call something a “cure” that is not a cure.
- Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.