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Flubs and flaws in New York Times stories on llamas and coffee

Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

I’ve written it and said it before: I applaud most of the New York Times pandemic-era news coverage.

But I continue to see head-scratching lapses in editorial approach and judgment – flaws that could be so easily corrected with a bit more caution and care.

Hoping llamas will become coronavirus heroes is a Times story on a journal article that drew a lot of attention from many journalists. One big problem:  there were no independent expert perspectives in the Times story.  The only people quoted were those involved in the research.  Overall, it was a reasonable story, with the cute llama angle, and ample caveats.  But quoting only the scientists involved in the work is less than what readers should expect from the Times – or from any of the other news organizations that may have followed their lead.  Headlines elsewhere, such as “Could llamas be crucial to finding a preventative COVID-19 cure?”  or “Can llamas save us?” were both based on, and linked to the NY Times story.

Meantime, over on the NY Times Well feature, a non-coronavirus story drew the ire of countless readers. This one was headlined, “Filtered Coffee May Be Especially Good for Heart Health.”

Among the most obvious flaws was the failure to point out the limitations of observational research such as this – research that cannot prove cause-and-effect.  But that didn’t stop the Times from using causal language such as “the effect on cardiovascular health.” And the coffee story – like the llama story above – offered no independent expert perspective, quoting only the senior researcher on the work.

Adam Cifu, MD, of the University of Chicago, may have kicked off one of the longest Twitter threads I’ve seen in a while.

Among the comments from others on the ensuing Twitter thread:

  • Oh good lord…it’s not as if it’s been a slow news day…or week…or month.
  • You would think with so much bad reporting on COVID research that reporters wouldn’t have time to cover bad research with even worse takes. Clearly that’s too much to ask for.
  • Like there’s not enough BS flying around.
  • I have never bothered with that idiotic column.
  • Unbelievable. This stuff doesn’t take a day off.
  • Hilarious; ten million person-years to answer the question of filter vs. french press.

Does it matter if The Times’ Well column is regularly scorned by readers as long as the online click rate rises? Apparently not.

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