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Dancing with the media

Academics need the media to help publicize their work, but when important findings are distorted it can lead to decades of distrust.


It wasn’t the message they’d meant to send – not at all, as a matter of fact. When Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart of the University of Victoria’s school of earth and ocean sciences published a paper in the journal Nature Climate Change last February, comparing the environmental impact of burning Alberta tar-sands oil to coal, gas and other fossil fuels, the two climate scientists intended to show that all fossil fuels are dangerous and that steps must be taken to curb their detrimental contributions to global warming. However, that wasn’t the way it was reported by the national media.

Starting with a piece by the Canadian Press and quickly followed by the CBC, Globe and Mail and other major outlets, the media focused on the point that tar-sands oil had the smallest impact of the fuels compared. Bold headlines, which Dr. Swart has since called “egregious and sensational,” gave readers the impression that Alberta’s oil wasn’t as bad as previously thought.

“We were disappointed, and also annoyed, that information and perspectives that we had provided had been seemingly excluded to produce an unbalanced message,” says Dr. Swart.

Even worse, tar-sands advocacy groups seized the opportunity, pointing to the news reports as evidence that they were right all along. “They were selectively quoting parts of our research to reinforce their standard propaganda that the tar sands do not have a large environmental impact,” says Dr. Swart. “This was frustrating but not unexpected.”

Misinterpretations and mistrust

Unfortunately, it’s a familiar tale for some academics. Because the professoriate and the mainstream media operate in somewhat separate worlds and write for completely different audiences, it’s understandable that there’s often a disconnect between them. It’s a void that sometimes breeds misinterpretations and, ultimately, mistrust, which only further separates the two sides. This has left some academics feeling disaffected, or worse, and the public, in many cases, misinformed.

A typical example is in the area of vaccine research, a topic that’s never far from the headlines. In 2007, Maclean’s magazine ran a cover story about Gardasil, the new human papilloma virus vaccine, under the headline “Our Girls Are Not Guinea Pigs.” The story suggested that upcoming mass inoculations of teenage girls against HPV using Gardasil were “the biggest science experiment in decades” and that the vaccine presented grave health risks, including potentially death.

“The article took a very slanted, somewhat alarmist approach at just the worst possible time, as the first programs were being rolled out and public health was still preparing its own information,” says David Scheifele, director of the Vaccine Evaluation Centre at Vancouver’s Child and Family Research Institute and a professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia.

Describing the situation as “very frustrating,” Dr. Scheifele notes that in the regions where Maclean’s readership was the highest, far fewer girls received the HPV vaccine. In Ontario, acceptance wallowed at only 50 percent in the first year and hasn’t improved much since, whereas in other areas, such as Halifax, local media presented positive and balanced reports and thus offset the negative impact; Halifax had an acceptance rate of more than 80 percent.

“Health officials in Ontario still lay a lot of blame on that Maclean’s article,” says Dr. Scheifele. “Half the school girls in Ontario aren’t being protected against this cancer potential, at least in part because of poor media coverage.”

Science vs celebrity

Dr. Scheifele notes that typical television reports juxtapose reliable scientific evidence on the safety and efficacy of a certain vaccine with emotional, but ultimately unfounded, accusations by parents – especially in the case of routine childhood immunizations and their supposed links to autism.

“The whole notion of balanced reporting is a crock when a credible scientist is put in the same piece as a celebrity,” he declares. “[Former Playboy model and television star] Jenny McCarthy is very compelling as a spokesperson for the measles-autism link, and it’s her ‘mommy sense’ that tells her the truth. Her mommy sense! No number of beautifully done scientific studies can compete with mommy sense when it’s presented in that particular way.”

Dr. Schiefele blames the situation on publishers using sensationalism to sell magazines and also on the widespread cutbacks in the media that have made good and experienced health reporters an “endangered species.” The result, he says, is that there is “a constant struggle to reassure people that vaccines are safe and getting safer all the time.”

Another academia-media disconnect comes in the form of a snub rather than a scoff. Marni Brownell, an associate professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba’s faculty of medicine, remembers cases where the press completely ignored her research, even when it had important implications for the general public and despite concerted efforts to get the word out.

She recalls one instance where she and her colleagues had evaluated a Manitoba provincial health program, called Healthy Baby, which provides income supplements and social supports to pregnant women and new mothers. The researchers determined that the program had produced a variety of positive outcomes, including a reduction in low birth weights and premature births and an increase in the rate of breastfeeding. Despite efforts to promote the good news to the media, the story fizzled, garnering only a small mention in the Winnipeg Free Press.

“It’s disappointing when you put a lot of work into a project and you think the results will be of great interest, and it doesn’t get the kind of coverage you expect,” she says. “You start wondering: How could we have put this message out differently?”

Getting the facts right

A group of academics with expertise in healthcare issues is seeking to answer that question., funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Manitoba Research Council, is a new organization headed by Noralou Roos, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Manitoba. Active for just over a year, the web-based project is working to provide access to credible, evidence-based information by linking journalists with health-policy experts.

“There are key discussions going on in health policy, and academics typically have that evidence, and it’s important for those discussions to be informed by evidence as much as possible,” says Dr. Roos.

The project aims to break the traditional pattern of academics writing for other academics in journals that aren’t read by the mainstream press, or of professors avoiding the media, leaving a select few to appear again and again. Dr. Roos knows of what she speaks: some 30 years ago, a newspaper headline distorted her research, an episode that caused her to steer clear of journalists as much as possible for decades afterwards. “I tried to avoid being picked up in the media, and I was pretty successful,” she says.

A tactic encouraged by is for academics to write op-eds and opinion pieces. This allows scholars to get the word out while also letting them control the message. With the help of Kathleen O’Grady, a woman with a foot in both worlds (she serves as a research associate at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University and also works as a writer and public relations consultant), the network advises academics on the style and structure of an op-ed, a big help in getting them published. “In some ways, an op-ed is the exact opposite of an academic essay,” says Ms. O’Grady.

So far, has been very successful, with almost 200 op-eds published in just its first year of operation. The University of Manitoba’s Dr. Brownell is a part of the network, and the tactic has certainly worked for her. With coaching from Ms. O’Grady, she has had two op-eds published online and in print, leading to further engagement with fellow researchers and an invitation to provide input for a Royal Commission. “It’s definitely a better experience,” she says.

In the end, UVic’s Dr. Weaver also turned to an op-ed to try to clear things up about the impact of tar-sands fuel, penning a precisely worded piece for the Toronto Star outlining exactly what he and Dr. Swart meant. Under the headline “The oilsands are a symptom of the bigger problem of our dependence on oil,” Dr. Weaver wrote, “it would be a huge mistake to interpret our results as some sort of ‘get out of jail free card’ for the tar sands … The world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. That means coal, unconventional gas and unconventional oil all need to be addressed.”

Dr. Swart adds that he and Dr. Weaver also gave “literally hundreds” of interviews to television, radio and newspaper outlets, and Dr. Swart commented on online articles and provided links back to a website he had set up with the outcomes of the study clearly stated. He was also very active on Twitter and other social media.

And while the whole experience was instructive and cautionary in nature, it hasn’t soured Dr. Swart on dealing with the media. “Being selectively quoted in order to promote a certain agenda, of course that’s problematic,” he observes. “But, based on this experience, I would say that it seems here in Canada that there are still a lot of reporters who are doing an excellent job of looking into the facts and getting them right.”

Tim Johnson is a freelance travel writer, contributing editor at Canadian Family magazine and a frequent contributor to University Affairs.

When distortion turns to libel

In perhaps the most extreme case in recent history of media misrepresentation of an academic’s work, more than a simple misunderstanding was at play. In a 1996 broadcast, the CBC’s investigative newsmagazine The Fifth Estate made the case that nifedipine, a drug designed to prevent heart attacks, was in fact causing serious harm and that Health Canada was doing very little about it. In the process, the TV show painted Frans Leenen as the villain in the matter, alleging that he supported the prescribing of killer drugs, had a conflict of interest and received kickbacks. Dr. Leenen, a professor of medicine and pharmacology and director of the hypertension unit at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, sued for libel after the CBC refused to apologize. The courts awarded Dr. Leenen nearly $1 million in damages plus legal costs in the spring of 2000. In his decision, which was subsequently upheld on appeal, Justice J.D. Cunningham of the Ontario Superior Court was unequivocal. His searing judgment noted that “the CBC took an eminent research scientist, whom they knew to be a person of high integrity and reputation, and presented him as a devious, dishonest, bumbling fool in order to advance the story line. … This was sensational journalism of the worst sort.”

The gender divide

Are women academics less likely than their male colleagues to present themselves as experts? Shari Graydon, a former newspaper journalist who now runs a non-proft project called Informed Opinions, thinks so. Ms. Graydon runs regular on-campus workshops with academics in Canada about how to share their expertise with the public. She has surveyed hundreds of female academics and found that they are quoted in media reports far less often than men. “The skew is so significant – it’s currently about 80-20 [male to female],” says Ms. Graydon. She notes that women tend to fear that they will look presumptuous by speaking on a subject and they also prefer taking time to consider their answers – a definite impediment for television and radio broadcasts. “There’s a whole contribution and value that we’re not getting access to if they’re not sharing what they know,” she says.

Tim Johnson
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  1. stephen strauss / September 11, 2012 at 16:35

    While this piece makes a valid argument, its lead example seems quite askew. If you look at what the media reported about the study and how the analysis was headlined, you will find nuances galore.

    For example a Globe headline says:

    “Science rides to aid of oil sands; Respected climate researchers report that, while no oil is good oil, the impact of Alberta’s resource has been overstated.”

    The Victoria Colonist headline says:

    “Coal bigger threat to climate change than oilsands: study; But tarsands industry also a huge contributor to Canadian emissions.”

    A Vancouver Province headline says: “Scientists stress threat of fossil-fuel usage.”

    A Post Media headline reads: “All fossil fuels must be cut to avoid global warming: scientists.”

    A Canadian Press headline does say: “Climate expert says coal not oilsands real threat”

    But the piece itself concludes with paragraphs quoting Weaver saying: “This idea that we’re going to somehow run out of coal and natural gas and fossil fuels is really misplaced. We’ll run out of human ability to live on the planet long before we run out of them.

    “I have always said that the tarsands are a symptom of a very big problem. The problem is dependence on fossil fuels.”

    Maybe there is more to the skewed reporting than can be easily accessed today, but on the surface it seems that this is a striking example of how the media and scientists are on the same page. And if they aren’t to begin with, they very quickly get there.

    One also idly wonders whether, some 30 years later, it might make sense to actually quote the dastardly headline which drove Dr. Roos away from talking to journalists in general. Without it, some small voice within suggests her response may have been a titch of an over-reaction.

  2. Dr.Doinglittle / September 12, 2012 at 16:45

    Wow – media reporting of academic research! What a novel concept!

    Seriously, I think a lot of this could be mitigated by teaching university students basic journalism and business writing techniques. There is something to be said for clarity and brevity when it comes to communicating a message, something academics too often lack. We surely cannot expect public audiences to make perfect sense of academic literature, particularly when so much of it is jargon.