NYT's new public editor settles in with criticism of paper's Alzheimer's test story

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The New York Times’ new public editor (or ombudsman), Arthur S. Brisbane, writes that his blog “opens with an entry in the field of science, something my mama told me never to do.” Actually, we hope to see much of this.

His opening target: the paper’s own front-page story of Aug. 10 by science reporter Gina Kolata, headlined “In Spinal Test, Early Warning on Alzheimer’s,” with a subhead that said “100% Accuracy Found in Study Results.”

He acknowledges that “The piece drew dissenting comments from a number of readers, including some with PhD appended to their names.”

We were among the critics, with our systematic story review (that called it misleading) and our blog posts:

• https://www.healthnewsreview.org/blog/2010/08/common-themes-in-the-alzheimers-test-stories-the-cancer-society-screening-ad.html


• https://www.healthnewsreview.org/blog/2010/08/hope-vs-false-hopeharm-in-news-stories-about-alzheimers-als.html

Brisbane writes that the subhead and the lead to the story “create the clear impression that here is a test that will enable you to walk into your doctor’s office and find out with 100% accuracy whether you will get Alzheimer’s. In fact, the study said something much narrower than that.” And more:

“My take is that danger awaits stories that venture into the land of 100% — or any other absolute, for that matter. Stories that report on something that is a “first,” a “biggest,” an “only”; stories that employ “never,” and stories that predict with absolute certainty are often headed for trouble. Yes, sometimes an absolute is absolutely right, but many, many times there is a crack of imperfection there.

A better approach in this case would have been to offer either a narrower claim for the 100% connection among factors or a broader description, less the absolute, of a promising new study of Alzheimer’s.”

Read his entire column and note the comments left online by some smart readers as well.

On Twitter, Paul Raeburn wrote – in an apparent assessment of Brisbane’s assessment: “OK, I guess, but superficial.” Raeburn was among the early critics of the original Kolata story in his contribution to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

But the Times’ public editor did write: “I could go on making further distinctions about the study, its structure and findings but the risk of saying something inaccurate grows, so I will stop and ask the question: What went wrong here and what should the story have said instead?”

I applaud Brisbane’s scrutiny of the story, limited though it may be. There is so much good done by the New York Times. But there is so much that could be so much better. Maybe his columns will help the paper look in the mirror and achieve that goal.

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