Media Ineptitude and Science

When the original research about the possibility that Henry VIII had a Kell positive blood type was published in The Historical Journal it created a certain amount of interest in a wider audience, thanks to the enduring public fascination with such a dramatic king. Thus, both Dr. Whitley and myself were interviewed by reporters. Imagine our surprise when articles began to appear claiming that we had requested Henry’s exhumation, or that we wanted to do it in order to see if he looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

There were other well-researched and non-lurid reports published about the theory, but they were in the minority (or at least seemed like it).

I was very disconcerted. Sure, I had been aware for some time that sensationalistic stories were an ongoing problem in the modern media, but it has not occurred to me that a historical postulation would inspire such wildly inaccurate headlines. Sadly, the haphazard reporting means that people who read those articles are now misinformed, through no fault of their own. They are going to assume permission to dig up Henry VIII  was asked and then it was denied. This will lead to the assumption that the theory must not have been plausible enough to warrant exhumation. It vexes me.

It’s one thing to have the theory disagreed with, but another thing entirely if it is brushed off because of a falsehood.

The reporting on the Henry/Kell theory left me with an acute awareness of the potential malarkey in every news report, and I have become careful to backtrack an article to the original source for confirmation.  My caution has not been unjustified, inasmuch as attention-grabbing but ridiculous articles have not been in short supply.

One example in particular has caught my attention recently. Over the last few days there have been headlines proclaiming that organic food isn’t more nutritious than non-organic food, giving the distinct impression that scientists have “proven” organic food is just hype. This is almost a perfect model of sensationalism and bad science reporting.

First of all, the sensational headlines are misleading, because they strongly imply that organic food doesn’t have health benefits. As long as the title is catchy enough for people to want to read at least a little of it, or is sufficient “click-bait” so people will look at it on line, the editor and/or reporter didn’t care if it was inaccurate and gave a false impression. The editor/reporter who came up with the headline is doubtlessly well aware that many people do not read past a headline, and will therefore be forming their opinion on organic v/s inorganic foods based on faulty information. Misinformation in the media can effect medical care and patient health, so accurate reporting is too important for this sort of lackadaisical concern for the truth.

Furthermore, the reporter that wrote the article clearly knew that the title did not match the scientific reality of the study. The same article whose headline trumpeted the study’s supposed proof that organic food is no better than its conventional counterparts contradicted itself in the second paragraph by saying, “But organic options may live up to their billing of lowering exposure to pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, researchers from Stanford University and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System found.”

Obviously the reporter was aware of the fact that the study found (as other studies have also found) that eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables increases the consumers ingestion of pesticides by more than 80% … and that these pesticides have been linked with multiple forms of cancer, water contamination, increasing health risks for farmers and their workers, as well as damaging wildlife and the environment. The fact that the article contains factual information contrary to the headline makes the article’s title inexcusably bad, since the anyone who wrote, or even read, the article would know that the information therein was the opposite of what the sensationalized headline purported.

Worst of all, in most reports there was no critical examination of the study’s methodologies, sample size, or indications that the study had ignored the impeccable research from the UK showing that organic foods were on average 12% more nutritious. This lack of criticism is especially egregious considering that the headlines had already misstated the substance of the study. It only serves to compound the erroneous message that organic food does not have tangible and proven heath benefits when it indisputably does.

This kind of slipshod reporting and yellowish journalism is only adding to the problem of a lack of scientific knowledge among the general public. Frankly, it is driving me a little nuts.

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