Readers heads must be spinning worse than Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist” when they read – in one story – that this “must be viewed as an association, rather than a cause-and-effect” – yet they get cause-and-effect language such as:
Over and over again, many news stories confuse readers about observational studies. It leads to a loss of confidence in science and a loss of credibility in journalism. That’s why this matters.
The cost of fish in the diet wasn’t discussed but we trust most people have a general idea of those costs.
A classic case of promoting a surrogate marker – what shows up on an MRI scan – as an outcome of benefit.
The story uses the phrase “cognitive benefit” barely mentioned any benefit to actual cognition – emphasizing only a change on an image of the brain. Only one line inadequately referred to: “The team further observed that people who ate baked or broiled fish weekly displayed better so-called ‘working memory’, enabling them to more effectively execute routine tasks.” Huh? How? To what degree? But that’s the only explanation of true potential benefit readers received.
Journalists need to explain things better than this.
Not as good as the competing WebMD story, which stated:
“The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish and limiting albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week because of concern about levels of mercury in these fish.”
The story never explicitly stated the limitations of an observational study. For help, see our primer on this topic.
It backed into it late in the story, stating, “For now, the connection must be viewed as an association, rather than a cause and effect.”
But the story confused readers throughout, using causal language inappropriately. Examples:
Subjects filled out a questionnaire – but the story never explained the limitations of this approach. That’s not to dismiss the approach – but the limitations are real and worth mentioning.
The story did include boilerplate language about the limitations of interpreting results of talks presented at scientific meetings, but by then, the confusion had been wrought upon readers.
No disease mongering of Alzheimer’s disease.
At least the story had one independent source, a NY neurologist who said, “One has to wonder if there are other factors… that they didn’t measure.” But his comments were buried deep in the story, as was the line “For now, the connection must be viewed as an association, rather than a cause-and-effect.” That should have been in the second paragraph at the latest.
The competing WebMD story much more explicitly stated “other risk factors for memory loss.”
The availability of fish is not in question.
A WebMD story, by comparison, said “Several studies have linked a diet rich in certain fish to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease….the new study is the first to establish a direct relationship between fish consumption, brain structure and Alzheimer’s risk.”
This story had none of that context.
We have no evidence that the story relied on a news release.