Credulous or Cynical? Calling out Poor Reporting

Credulous or Cynical? Calling out Poor Reporting

You will of course remember the slew of scary sounding headlines between Christmas and the New Year, each one blindly repeating the same headline and the contents of a press release of a terrible study without any regard whether or not the press release relates to the study in any way shape or form.

I picked apart the press release and study the day after it appeared on the Eureka Alert site, as did Fergus Mason. Adam Jacobs (The Stats Guy) also pulled it apart and called it Dangerous Nonsense and rightly so. Linda Bauld with some help from Suzi Gage published a rebuttal in The Guardian, which didn’t get anywhere near the coverage that the original article received of course.

Guy Bentley from The Daily Caller published several articles during the whole debacle and Twitter was alive with people sharing all the articles, both positive and negative. Bradley J Fikes took his time reading both sides, the press release and the study, which shines through in his article.

Being the kind of person I am, I decided to complain about Knapton’s article so I duly completed the online form, complete with citations and all the information that was deliberately left out of the article; such as the comparison to cigarette smoke and the fact that cells exposed to it died within 24 hours of exposure. No where, not even once was that actually mentioned in any of the highly visible articles, or in print.

As per The Telegraph’s rules, they had five working days to respond, which they stuck to. I received a relatively lengthy e-mail from Jess McAree:

Thank you for contacting us about this article.

Newspapers are written for general audiences. Provided they do not significantly misrepresent the findings of scientific studies, they are not obliged to represent all the nuances and details that would be expected by readers of specialist medical journals. They are also entitled to report the content of press releases issued by study authors and/or academic bodies.

As newspapers are written for “general audiences” don’t you think it’s worthwhile including all the facts about a piece of scientific study? Such as the comparison to tobacco smoke? That’s called responsible reporting. As Clive Bates mentions - “The Daily Caller put the record straight and a vaper, Paul Barnes, did the best job of showing journalists how to be journalists: Facts do matter blog: degreasing engines and killing cells. Another vaper, Fergus Mason, followed up with a blog explaining it all for the giants of UK popular science writing: New study shows e-cigarettes are safer than tobacco smoke.”

In this case, the article’s headline accurately reflects the view of one of the study’s lead researchers, Dr Wang-Rodriquez, namely: “I believe [e-cigarettes] are no better than smoking regular cigarettes”. It cannot therefore be significantly inaccurate.

Unless my thinking decided to take a wrong turn in to absurdity, I thought the job of a journalist and the paper is to report fact, not opinion in situations like this. Sadly, it would appear my thinking did take that wrong turn as apparently it is absolutely fine to print the “opinion” (no matter how misguided or factually incorrect) of a researcher when it isn’t backed up by the study being reported on.

You dispute the accuracy of the article’s first paragraph. It does not in fact state, as you suggest, that damage to DNA caused by e-cigarette vapour conclusively proves that damaged cells would develop cancer. It says only that this ‘could’ be a consequence. This is not in dispute. The study itself notes that the formation of double-strand DNA breaks “are particularly dangerous to cells as they can lead to irreparable mutations and genomic aberrations”, and that their accumulation in e-cigarette treated cells “is particularly suggestive of the carcinogenic potential of e-cigs.”

I didn’t dispute the accuracy of the first paragraph, I noted (just as Fergus did) “You can say they have similar effects as some things that cause cancer – and some things that don’t – but you can’t say they cause cancer” - I did not categorically state anything else to the contrary.

That the article does not mention the study’s use of cancerous head and neck cells is not significant; given that the principal significance of the study is the putative effects of e-cigarette vapour upon healthy human cells, the writer was entitled to focus on this aspect. Similarly, there was no obligation to mention the tobacco comparison; the study proved a mechanism for potential damage to human cells from e-cigarette vapour, which was the focus of the article.

So, deliberately leaving out particular facts is “not significant” and that there is “no obligation” to mention the comparison to tobacco - when the headline itself clearly claims (albeit an opinion) that “e-cigarettes no safer than tobacco (emphasis mine)” - you would think that by making that comparison in the headline there would be more detail in the body. But no, the author was under “no obligation” to include that. The study itself proved that cells died from the control too, but that wasn’t mentioned either.

But here’s the telling part - “the study proved a mechanism for potential damage to human cells from e-cigarette vapour, which was the focus of the article - the focus of the article was the e-cigarette vapour causing damage to human cells. There is something extraordinarily wrong with that.

Contrary to what you say, the article did not significantly misrepresent Dr Wang-Rodriquez’s comments. She stated: “In this particular study, it [the study’s evaluation of e-cigarette vapour exposure] was similar to someone smoking continuously for hours on end.” Plainly, this would be true of a ‘chain-vaper’, as the article states. It also makes clear her concern that the study results might not “hold up outside the lab”. Overall, the article balanced the available evidence on the safety of e-cigarettes. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill we have added some further quotes from Dr Wang-Rodriquez to clarify the point.

Again, I didn’t state that the article mis-represented Wang-Rodriguez’s comments, I stated that the article mis-represented the study (which I attached for reference, but it seems that it went unread as I expected). It is clear from the “Plainly, this would be true of a ‘chain-vaper’” comment that Jess McAree didn’t read the study, nor put any of my complaint into context.

I have since checked the article, and unfortunately for Jess McAree, there have been no other comments from Wang-Rodriguez added…

Not only have the Telegraph published a terribly biased story, but they also don’t actually believe there is anything wrong with it!