Sensationalism in the - Sensationalism in the Media: When...

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Sensationalism in the Media: When Scientists and Journalists May Be Complicit Collaborators S 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, 1–9 and a few years ago one author predicted that “the tensions are likely to increase.” 1 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. 3, 12 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. 2 News about such topics as diet, cholesterol, the toxic shock syndrome, and breast implantation affects individual behavior and sometimes causes panic. 1 Subsequent research does not support some claims or interpretations, as in the cases of pancreatic cancer and coffee drinking 4, 13, 14 or breast implants and collagen vascular disease. 15 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. 4, 12 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. 16 Similarly, in science writing, “the trend toward tabloidization, trivialization, sensationalism and dumbing-down . . . [may drive] away readers and viewers.” 11 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
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Sensationalism in the - Sensationalism in the Media: When...

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