Sensationalism in the
Media: When Scientists
and Journalists May Be
ensationalism in medical reporting occurs when extravagant claims or inter-
pretations about research findings are made. Sensationalism in medical report-
ing has been discussed extensively,
and a few years ago one author predicted that
“the tensions are likely to increase.”
The conventional explanation for the problem
is “miscommunication” resulting from the different styles of science and journalism,
and the principal intervention proposed is “education.”
2, 3, 10, 11
While different styles
of communication may contribute to inaccurate science journalism, we believe that
subtle incentives sometimes cause scientists, journalists, and others involved in the
reporting of science to contribute to sensationalism. Regardless of its specific causes,
sensationalism may prevent the public from being knowledgeable participants in
policy discussions about scientific issues. In this Policy Matters, we review the prob-
lem, causes, and possible solutions.
Why Sensationalism Is a Problem
Distorted journalistic reports can generate both false hopes and unwarranted fears.
For instance, when a finding is reported in a sensational way, the results may create
a national media feeding frenzy. An example is the reaction to a report of a single-
blinded study involving only four patients with Alzheimer disease.
such topics as diet, cholesterol, the toxic shock syndrome, and breast implantation
affects individual behavior and sometimes causes panic.
Subsequent research does
not support some claims or interpretations, as in the cases of pancreatic cancer and
4, 13, 14
or breast implants and collagen vascular disease.
Because democracies rely on an informed citizenry to debate and decide
among policy choices, sensationalism may threaten effective involvement by desensi-
tizing the public to information about medical science through repetitive cycles of
excitement and disappointment.
A similar kind of cynicism has been described in
the reporting of political news: In some cases, it is easier for journalists to report
superficial controversies than to conduct and report deeper analyses of complicated
and substantive problems.
Similarly, in science writing, “the trend toward
tabloidization, trivialization, sensationalism and dumbing-down . . .
away readers and viewers.”
In both politics and biomedicine, the complexity of a
problem may be sacrificed to the expediency of a simple and gripping story.
Why Sensationalism Happens
One perhaps puzzling aspect of sensationalism in medical reporting is that the
reports published in scientific journals may be so cautious in tone as to be considered
dull, while the same research reported in the lay press may be sensationalized. While
the professions of journalism and science each have well-defined standards to
encourage accuracy, fairness, and balance in writing, the process sometimes yields a