Don’t let news-release-copying journalists off the hook so easily. It’s journalism, not stenography.

A BBC story keeps the “bad luck and cancer” story alive for at least another day, with a headline, “So is cancer mostly ‘bad luck’ or not?

The story begins:

Headline-writers and news bulletin editors around the world just couldn’t get enough of a new study of cancer published on 2 January. “Two thirds of cancers are due to bad luck” reported one typical news story – and most other media outlets had similar headlines.

But there’s been criticism of the way this statistic was reported, some of it directed at journalists, and some at the researchers themselves.

Yes, there has, and we noted some of it in our Sunday summary post.

The BBC story goes to great care to explain the science, but we disagree with one part of their story, that stated:

“…who is to blame for the confusing headlines? Prof George Davey-Smith, a clinical epidemiologist at Bristol University, argues that it’s not the journalists on the mainstream newspapers, TV bulletins and news websites.

The headline of Science’s own editorial, he points out, was “the bad luck of cancer”. The subheading added: “Analysis suggests most cases can’t be prevented.” And this a conclusion, he says, that the data cannot support.

“In the press release [from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine] the authors say they’ve come up with a method to quantify the contribution of these stochastic or chance factors, which their method doesn’t,” he adds.

“It’s both in the journal and in the press release so it’s just not fair to attribute the mis-reporting of this to journalists – they’ve just copied what’s in the journal and in the press release.”

 It’s that last quote, in the red font that we added for emphasis, that is the source of our disagreement.

We’re talking about journalism, not stenography.

We believe that those covering health/medicine/science are obligated to independently vet the evidence, and we encourage them to turn to independent experts to help them do so. See Criterion #6 on our list of review criteria.   We even offer a list of industry-independent experts who are willing to help journalists.

The story rebounds, though, with a decent ending:

In the end, the amount of media attention given to this study was not justified by the findings, Davey-Smith says.

“Explaining the difference in risk between the leg and the lung is of no interest to anyone and says nothing about the contribution to cancers in the population. It’s like getting two statistics, two estimates, that bear no relationship to each other and because you’ve got a number, applying that number to some other domain.”

But while the headlines may have been misleading, and the study itself has some serious critics, the research does contain an important message for people who have cancer and lead a healthy lifestyle, according to P Z Myers.

“What’s important about the study is that it does say that if you have cancer – and I think this is something people who have cancer would like to hear – it’s not something you should blame yourself for.”

It is not easy work covering studies like this.  We know we are holding the bar quite high with our expectation that journalists independently analyze the quality of the evidence.  It is never, in our minds, an excuse to say, “Well we got it wrong because the journal article and the news release got it wrong.”  To me, that’s a ticket to moving over to the sports reporting beat.

As we’ve previously promoted, we are into our second week now of starting to review health/medical/science news releases behind the scenes, in preparation for the rollout of our new site in March or April, with a new feature introduced then of regular systematic, criteria-driven reviews of news releases.  I just met with our web development team for an early progress report and I’m very excited about what they’re building.


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