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How Media Misinformation Exploits Sensationalism, from "Science Says" to Potentially Harmful Health Claims


November 20, 2023 at 12:54:39 PM

Take a look at how the disturbing trend of click-driven media can mislead the public and ignore the importance of null research findings.

As a former employee of the local news media, I remember doing stories that made me roll my eyes. They were stupid. Just plain stupid. Yet my reporter and I plodded through, knowing that it was just part of a day’s work.

For the most part, none of my stories violated my ethics. Sure, there were some sensational stories I covered to heighten ratings during sweeps, but none of them were about misleading the public.

Yet the abundance of websites out there these days are vying for your eyeballs. Take a look at your media feed, and you’ll see a variety of headlines that seek to hook you. That hook might be one small element of the overall story, yet the hook is why you navigated to the website. So the website won another click-through so it could boost its ad sales.

In other words, it’s not about informing the public. It’s about winning click-throughs from Google. Score!

Some of these stories are harmless, like “Eat This Breakfast Food to Meet Your Hydration Goals.” (It’s oatmeal) Others will dip their toes into “science,” like “Science Says People with Blue Eyes Are More Likely to Marry Younger.” (I just made that up, by the way)

Yet the mass media will often grab elements of a scientific study and use them to stoke an element of fear. You can blame part of it on the publicists, who will spin a scientist’s odd finding so that the research will get picked up by the news media.

For example, a 2014 pilot study in the Journal of Pain found that women with lighter-colored eyes (not necessarily green) experienced less pain during childbirth than women with brown eyes. However, the sample size of this study was only 58, so this difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Unfortunately, this study had been publicized all over the news. Sure, the responsible news operations mentioned that it wasn’t significant, and essentially this study was meaningless.

But what happens is that other websites pick this up, citing either the study or the “responsible” news outlet, and they water it down. So when eye doctors’ websites or other “health” websites talk about green eyes, they’ll revert to this single, meaningless study. But hey, it got people to click.

Even still, how green eyes affect your health is still relatively harmless.

Harmful media misinformation

What ventures deeper into irresponsible territory is when you see PR companies promoting scientific studies involving disease or death. Research on disease and death is so important, and this is why I love to write about the latest findings on health.

Yet sometimes researchers will find some connection that was unexpected. It might not have been what they were looking for to begin with, but it was just an add-on in a larger survey that popped up as statistically significant. So the researchers can get the most out of these large epidemiological datasets, they will publish these unexpected findings.

Ever heard about left-handed people dying earlier than right-handed people? Or how about left-handed women being more likely to get breast cancer? These types of studies probably added handedness to their large research questionnaire and found statistically significant links. However, when researchers tried to replicate these studies, as most researchers do, they don’t find a connection.

Meanwhile, this one study about how left-handedness might cause people to die early gets picked up by the news media because it’s sensational. It gets clicks. It gets people talking. The researchers get media exposure, which is good for getting grants for their next project.

Yet other researchers are scrolling through their own data and saying, “Yeah, I didn’t find anything about left-handedness in my study.” And some researchers will even ask for this data to analyze themselves, and they won’t find significance. They might publish a subsequent commentary on what was wrong with the analysis to begin with, but that doesn’t get media attention. The mass media favors the unexpected and extraordinary.

Remember what happened with the vaccines and autism research? The news media picked up on it, parents ate it up, yet researchers went back through the data and found it significantly flawed. And it took years for people to be convinced that vaccines don’t cause autism. There is still significant damage from media misinformation.

When researchers find no link

What also doesn’t get promoted in the news media is when researchers find NO link. That’s because there’s often a publication bias that occurs. Peer-reviewed journals will often favor research that shows significant findings, such as the connection between smoking and a host of health issues. This publication bias pressures researchers to find something—anything—that can be picked up by a research journal.

A publicist might not be able to promote null research findings. That’s not sexy. It won’t make the headlines as much as sensational research. And the websites that could write about null research findings will pass because they know people won’t click through. So the public remains uninformed, and doctors pull their hair out when another patient comes to them after hearing about how one study told them they were going to die early because they’re left-handed.

No, you’re probably going to die early because you don’t get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. You’re more likely to die early if you smoke or drink alcohol in excess. You’re likely to die early if you eat ultra-processed food. Sure, you can stress out about being left-handed, but more than likely there are other factors affecting your health than what hand you write with.

Rather than pay attention to these health websites that both scare you and entice you to click, bookmark reputable ones that give you the big picture so you can put the latest research into a broader context.

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