IPSO FACTOID: Of Mice and Men- Sensationalized ‘journalism’ has got it all wrong

Following all the hoo-ha we’ve seen recently over the cervical cancer vaccination, it was with some interest I noted that the Daily Mail hailed “Cervical cancer wiped out by pioneering use of ‘amazing’ osteoporosis drugs“. Journalist Fiona MacRae went on to excitedly tell us that “Cervical cancer can be destroyed by drugs used to treat breast cancer and osteoporosis, a study suggests. In results described as ‘amazing’ by researchers, one of the treatments eliminated the cancer in 11 out of 13 cases”. It almost sounds too good to be true, and indeed eight paragraphs into the article Ms MacRae mentions that “The initial results come from experiments in mice”. The actual study abstract can be found here.

To be fair, she does go on to give some cautionary quotes from people who understand that this research is very much in its early stages. However the article still has a very misleading slant from the get-go, starting with an over-hyped headline. Pleasingly, The Telegraph gets this story very right, and the journalist (who’s name I can’t find, please contact me if you know who it is) gives a lesson in good science reporting. There is no screamingly exaggerated headline; they give a clear indication that this is a study in mice from the first sentence; and there is some interesting commentary on the future possibilities of this research. This is an interesting story without making it out to be something it is not. As always, the awesome Behind The Headlines gives the facts.

This is a classic example of one of the media’s favored tactics for creating over-hyped articles: Reporting the results of petri dish and animal studies as if they apply equally to humans. The Metro did just this at the end of October when they reported Young ‘better off’ without flu shots. In particular the Metro journalist Miles Erwin wrote: “It is beneficial to allow youngsters to contract the illness as it could afford them better protection against more dangerous pandemics in the future, experts believe”.

Mr Erwin fails to point out that this expert opinion is just that, an opinion piece in the Lancet based mostly on mice studies. The same edition of the journal also features a piece arguing that such conclusions aren’t necessarily valid (note both the above links are behind pay-walls). Janet Raloff over at Science News gives a very good summary of the issue.

I personally think pre-clinical petri and animal studies should be reported in the mainstream media. Both the possible cervical cancer breakthrough and the possibility of issues with flu vaccination are important and interesting topics. However they should be reported for what they are: Early stage studies which give us a hint that something interesting might be going on. Cells in a test tube or mice in a lab are, for fear of stating the obvious, not humans. The FDA estimates that only 0.1 of compounds pass pre-clinical trials and go on to be tested in humans. And even if they do pass this first phase, and assuming they pass all subsequent phases, it can take a drug 5-10 years to get from the lab to the market.

This kind of sensationalized reporting adds to the public perception that scientists are constantly contradicting themselves, saying something cures one week and kills the next. Perhaps if, instead, journalists met their journalistic obligation and tried to educate their readers on the complexities involved in developing a drug, then we might have a society on our hands who appreciated that there has to be more to a story than “inject drug into mouse, cure cancer”. Of course, having a readership who expects good science in their media reporting really wouldn’t be in these newspaper’s best interests, now would it?

November 24, 2009 at 10:23 am | Ipso Factoid | Comments Off