A recent study has suggested that when authors of scientific papers omit basic facts from the article title, like whether the study was conducted in mice, media coverage tend to do the same.
As a we have seen with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, how we communicate with the public can have a big impact on their response, like the uptake of vaccinations. We have all seen examples of misleading headlines. From claiming that bacon gives people cancer to implying that alcohol can extend your lifespan. Whatever the click bait headline is, scientists for some time have been concerned over how the media report scientific findings.
In March 2019, James Heather from Northwestern University, launched a Twitter account @justsaysinmice. This account calls attention to news stories with headlines that omit that the new medical findings they report are based on research using mice (and not humans). Unfortunately, this issue, and the use of hyperbolic language, is frequently seen in news articles reporting on health. One example of this is seen within Alzheimer’s disease (AD) related research. AD is a neurodegenerative disorder that does not occur naturally in any other species. Despite this, there are around 200 rodent models that researchers use to study AD. Unfortunately, this critical factor is often omitted from news stories and particularly in the story’s headline.
What scientists do, journalists follow
In a recent study, published in PLOS BIOLOGY, researchers tested the hypothesis that the way science is reported by scientists plays a role in how news is reported by journalists. To test this hypothesis, they investigated whether there was an association between articles’ titles and news’ headlines, in relation to whether mice are omitted or not. They specifically analysed a sample of 623 open-access scientific papers published in 2018 and 2019. These papers specifically involved mice as models or as the biological source for experimental studies in AD research.
From this analysis, the team found a significant association between the title of articles and the headline of news stories. This revealed that when authors themselves omit mice in the paper’s title, writers of news stories tend to follow suit. As a writer myself, I think I must subconsciously do this as well! The researchers also found that papers that did not mention mice in their titles were more newsworthy. As a result, they were significantly more tweeted than papers that did mention mice.
Impact of omitting mice from papers
Overall, this study shows that science reporting within scientific journals ultimately affects how it is reported in the media. I can list countless times where I have seen a headline and then delved further into the study to find out that it was in fact preclinical research. Scientists and writers (like myself) need to ensure that we report findings transparently to avoid misinterpretation and to manage expectations.
Dr. Marcia Triunfol, co-author of the study, expressed:
“We need to remember that most people only read the headlines of news stories. Thus, if the headline omits that the Alzheimer’s study was done in mice, most keep the impression that the study findings apply to humans, which is not true. We now know that virtually all findings obtained in animal studies in Alzheimer’s Disease do not replicate to humans”.
Image credit: By Evgenyi_Eg – canva