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No evidence of media 'genohype'

4 May 2004
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 256

Despite fears of widespread 'genohype', most newspaper reports about developments in genetics are accurate, a new Canadian study reveals. Articles about genetics in broadsheet newspapers reflect the claims made in scientific papers, conclude authors Tania Bubela and Timothy Caulfield, of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. However, they did identify a tendency to overemphasise the benefits and underplay the risks of some new findings, both in the original paper and the news article. This could be because scientists themselves are subtly hyping their discoveries, they suggest. Their findings are published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The authors looked at 627 articles published by newspapers in Canada, the US, UK and Australia. They included 129 reports taken from the UK's Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent and Scotsman newspapers. The news articles covered 111 different scientific papers, published in 24 medical and science journals. Caulfield and Bubela found that only 11 per cent of all the newspaper stories studied made 'moderately to highly exaggerated claims', while 63 per cent made no exaggerated claims and 26 per cent were classed as including 'slightly exaggerated claims'. 'That for me was a surprising result', said Caulfield. The study also found that most of the articles (82 per cent) contained no significant scientific or technical errors.

The study also looked at how often newspapers reported the downsides of new research, and found that 85 per cent focussed solely on its potential benefits. Caulfield thinks this could be down to an escalating 'media arms race', with scientists 'under increasing pressure to make their research sound exciting and immediately applicable'. He added: 'I think that that message is being picked up, surprisingly uncritically, by the media and passed on to the public'. A commentary accompanying the study, by Celeste Condit, cautioned that 'the reporter will probably feature rosy forecasts if the scientist is willing to offer them, yet such forecasts may all too often come to be seen as broken promises'.

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Canadian Medical Association Journal |  27 April 2004
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