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Hype, hope and headlines

30 September 2013
Appeared in BioNews 724

Last week the charity that publishes BioNews, the Progress Educational Trust (PET), organised an evening debate entitled 'Hype, Hope and Headlines: How Should Breakthroughs in Fertility Treatment Be Reported?' in partnership with City University London. This event explored how and when fertility research should be reported in the media, and where the responsibility lies to ensure that such reporting is not overhyped.

The location of the debate, which seemed to be (by way of many stairs) the deepest basement lecture theatre of the university, did little to deaden the enthusiasm and opinions of the chair and panel. The packed and diverse audience included journalists, press officers, clinicians, representatives of professional bodies, and students.

Typical of PET debates, the first half hour consisted of the panellists putting forward their opinions about the subject title. While these opinions differed substantially (the panel included a newspaper editor and two clinicians) all three panellists aligned closely with the need for responsible reporting.

The first speaker was Professor Simon Fishel, managing director of the CARE Fertility group. Professor Fishel used his ten minutes to talk about responsible reporting against the backdrop of evidence-based practices. Whilst, at times, I felt that his point was lost, his main argument seemed to be that 'all scientific knowledge is provisional' and journalists need to understand this: it is important to decipher how a published piece of research has been conducted to be able to determine how reliable the results are. Randomised controlled trials, said Professor Fishel, are the gold standard for evidence-based practices, but there are other approaches which can also be used to help understand the effectiveness of a new technology. Media reporting of science research must reflect an understanding of these approaches.

There was no chance of missing the opinion of the second speaker, Nick Macklon, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Southampton. Professor Macklon opened by highlighting the vulnerabilities of families going through IVF, as well as their desperation to have a baby. He asked us to imagine a couple having undergone unsuccessful IVF, sitting at a breakfast table, opening the newspaper and reading that there had been a 'breakthrough' in IVF treatment. He pointed out that such a family would no doubt excitedly 'fly out the door' in search of this breakthrough before inspecting the last paragraph, which may have mentioned the limitations and/or lack of evidence for the research, and of course the expense of such a treatment.

This anecdote was used as a springboard to highlight the damaging effects of 'hyped' news articles reporting breakthroughs in fertility research. For Professor Macklon, while it is important to get science out to the public, there will always be a risk to victims which we must acknowledge - and not just this generation, but also the next, since the way future generations perceive technologies (whether those technologies work or not) can influence the use of those technologies in healthcare. Journalists, he said, need to be more critical and take more responsibility.

The last speaker, Dr Hannah Devlin, science editor of The Times, defended herself well from the other speakers. Her main point of departure from the clinicians (which to me seems quite an important point) was in terms of where to draw the line about what should be reported. For her, it doesn't just have to be randomised controlled trials that reach the media - reporting incremental steps in science is also acceptable. Hannah spent a lot of her time just wanting to be understood as a journalist/editor. She pointed out how she too strongly disagrees with the use of the term 'breakthrough'; that she understands the difference between 'this is proof' versus 'just illustrating the science'; and that we must remember that sometimes standards do drop and that this is not always the fault of the journalist, but rather the constraints they are under - often having to churn out a couple of stories every day.

The brutality of our Chair, Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, to adhere to the time limits for each of the speakers allowed for a much-needed long and lively audience discussion. In fact, Fiona was so excited following the speakers' presentations that it was her who kicked off the stream of questions that flooded in. The first few audience comments, revolving around control and access to information, prompted a lively interaction between Professors Fishel and Macklon concerning the question: 'even if the clinician is genuinely excited about her/his research, is this really the best time to report it?'

Fiona quickly broke up the panellists' increasingly heated discussion on this topic to allow for further audience contribution. Many of the questions that followed centered around issues of obligations - where does the responsibility of reporting lie. Some audience members felt it was wrong to put the responsibility onto journalists - although journalists need to act with integrity, clinicians and scientists also have a role to play in managing expectations of patients. In fact one audience member asked us to pay homage to the highly accomplished science journalism that we have in this country! The panel agreed with such comments, though pointed out that this is in fact a difficult endeavour, and that what is maybe needed are better resources for patients who are not so reliant on newspapers - much like they have in the USA.

I was incredibly surprised that the issue of clinicians' vested interests in media publicity - particularly fertility specialists who are mainly employed in private establishments - was not raised until the later in the event. Though this did not stop the enthusiasm with which the issue was debated. After a lively discussion, the consensus on the panel seemed to be that fertility experts had no more or less of a vested interest in getting their research into the media than ordinary academics, who also needed publicity to garner further support for their own research field. In all areas of research, then, some clinicians will benefit from speaking to the media and some will not, but we shouldn't trust other academics any more or less than fertility specialists.

The chair finally closed the event by pointing out that while science communicators generally want to be responsible, hype in the headlines most likely stems from all contributors, including scientists, press officers, journalists and editors. What it comes down to, said Professor Macklon, is 'pausing'. All professions involved in science communication should pause before deciding whether to publish.

My own research, which has explored how science press officers view their role as science communicators, suggests, however, that such simple recommendations are unlikely to have much effect. My interviewees' views of what is 'responsible' reporting and what is 'hyped' often differ from such views in other professions.

PET would like to thank Connie St Louis at City University London for her invaluable help co-organising the event.

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