How did a nonstory based on an iffy study end up in a New York Times blog?

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Capping quite a week in criticism of health-medical-science journalism (see my two previous posts), Slate offers a column, “Bullies Like Bullying: How did a nonstory based on an iffy study end up in a New York Times blog?” Daniel Engber’s column targets the work of New York Times health blogger Tara Parker-Pope. Excerpts:

“Last Wednesday, she posted about a team of neuroscientists from the University of Chicago who had shoved a handful of bullying teenagers into an fMRI scanner to see what was going on inside their heads. “In a chilling finding,” she wrote, “the researchers found aggressive youths appear to enjoy inflicting pain on others.”

Bullies like bullying? I just felt a shiver run up my spine. Next we’ll find out that alcoholics like alcohol. Or that overeaters like to overeat. Hey, I’ve got an idea for a brain-imaging study of child-molesters that’ll just make your skin crawl!”

Then, after getting into specifics of what was flawed with the story, Engber wrote:

In this case, I’m less interested in the science than the lamebrained science journalism. The New York Times did something worse than covering a nonstory—it shamelessly promoted it. Take another look at Parker-Pope’s write-up, and now read the University of Chicago press release that went out the week before. Three entire paragraphs (including an extended quote) make it from the release into the six-paragraph Times post, virtually unchanged. The rest is paraphrase.

It’s no wonder she missed some potential flaws in the bullying study. A quick look through the archives suggests that Parker-Pope makes a regular practice of touching up university-wire stories without any discernable reporting of her own. On Oct. 29, she posted on a study of stress and decision-making in seniors. The material was reworded slightly, but all of it—including the quotes—had previously appeared in a USC press release. In this piece from Nov. 4 on a study showing that children are safest under their grandparents’ care, she acknowledges pulling a quote from a Johns Hopkins release but never acknowledges that the rest of the information she cites also appears in that release. Same goes for a Nov. 10 post on how drivers respond to speed limits, which consists entirely of information that appeared in a release from the Purdue University news service.

I don’t mean to suggest it’s a crime to take material from a press release. But it’s certainly lazy, and there’s every reason to believe that Parker-Pope knows better. In her short tenure at Well (and in her previous gigs), she’s shown a knack for smart and skeptical science coverage: Posting on a study of how television affects teen pregnancy rates, she goes out of her way to complicate the sexed-up angle from the press release. Indeed, two years ago, she informed the Columbia Journalism Review that, “as reporters, we should never take anything at face value. I think a mistake that a lot of people might make is to read the press release. I almost never read the press release.”

Go to the link above and read the entire column. The hyperlinks on the Slate site add depth to this discussion.

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Marilyn Mann

November 23, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Interesting post. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.


November 25, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Bullies like bullying – this is an obvious bad summary. If the researchers can link the bullies to an intermediary – like Coca Cola – saying something like “we’ve found bullies all drink excessive amount of Coca Cola so we believe the Coke can trigger the bullying behavior”. If they’ve done that, it will make a worth reading report.
The point – many of these inductions are non-sense, and this one isn’t the worst.


November 27, 2008 at 2:31 am

Does anyone consider the NYT a credible reporter of science?
I know no one with ANY scientific interests who consider it a reliable source on anything science-related. For pop science most of us look at pop science web sites that are devoted to that particular arena. And, most of us know how to use PubMed – and knew about Medline prior to that.