Is reporting of science stories irresponsible?

Last year one of our Diploma public relations students looked at the media’s reporting of science stories for his dissertation.  Reports today about a study into the risks of HRT are fascinating as a case study of this.

Take the “report” in the Guardian – HRT linked to 1,000 deaths from cancer  – which is totally missing any critical analysis.  Written by Sarah Boseley, health editor, it is worth deconstructing for the use of language alone.  How dismissive to state:

HRT has been used by millions of women to alleviate the symptoms of menopause or – in some cases – because they hope it will help them remain youthful and active for longer.

The report by is said to be “authoritative” and “the first firm calculation of deaths related to HRT” – which is entirely different from the opening paragraph’s claim:

Hormone replacement therapy may have caused the deaths of more than 1,000 women in the UK from ovarian cancer since 1991, scientists reveal today.

Boseley states those taking it are “risking death from a particularly lethal form of cancer” and directs a conclusion that the research “will not be the last straw for HRT, but it may well reduce the numbers willing to take the risk of hormone treatment.”

She also states that “Prof Beral and her colleagues have already shown that women who take the therapy are at increased risk of breast cancer and womb cancer. The risks of breast cancer are the highest, accounting for a probable 20,000 cases over a decade.”  No mention of the fact that these results have been shown to be an over-estimate (see below). 

Although acknowledging “Early findings about health risks attached to HRT were hugely controversial” – Boseley makes no effort to explore these, stating “but Prof Beral thinks the problems have now been generally accepted.”

“People like to say there is a debate about HRT. I think that’s not true,” she said. “Some people like to make out that it is uncertain what is going on, but I don’t think there has been a debate for a long time. GPs are increasingly aware and so are women. The important thing is that women know these figures are right and not exaggerated.”

The results of the study are not put into any context and the figures that “one woman in 2,500 will get ovarian cancer while a long-term user of HRT and one in every 3,300 will die from it” are not related to non-users, which is relevant to make sense of the data. 

There is a bizarre conclusion in relation to HRT’s value for osteoporosis:

“My personal view is that the sensible thing is to take HRT when you are 80,” said Prof Beral. “My mother is 90 and has had a lot of fractures. I was very happy to say to my mother take HRT at 90.” What mattered at that point was her quality of life. “If she has breast cancer when she is 95 – so what?”

How many 80-year old women suffer from the menopause?

has an equally one-sided headline: “HRT alert after more than 1,000 women die.”  Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor states:

HRT increases the risk of the disease by 20 per cent, the biggest investigation of links between HRT and cancer has found. Although the absolute risk is low, millions of women took HRT in the 1990s and so the total impact is large: an extra 1,300 cases of the disease and 1,000 deaths between 1991 and 2005, according to the Million Women Study.

However here we see a balance with “The findings were challenged by John Stevenson, of the Royal Brompton Hospital in London and the chairman of the charity Women’s Health Concern.”

“The study grossly overestimates the breast cancer risk, and now we have findings from a five-year study that have to be extended to a 14-year time frame to make them more sensational,” he said. “This is not science, and the findings themselves fly in the face of cancer biology.”

The BBC and GMTV breakfast television reports also sought to put the study into context and give to those who may be concerned.

I have no interest in the issue of HRT itself, my question is over the impact of simplistic reporting.  Blind acceptance of a study, reproducing a press release (as can be seen from the common language used), lack of alternative perspectives or context, sensationalised headlines, pejorative language – all contribute to a sense of panic and fear.  They may also affect public understanding of medical and scientific research.

Last week it was reducing obesity issues to a “” – and I’ve already heard people cite this as a reason for being overweight.  It serves no purpose at all for those involved in public relations or the media to generate this simplistic reporting of science.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

5 thoughts on “Is reporting of science stories irresponsible?”

  1. A friend of mine is taking part in a trial about breast cancer. I think if these sorts or people’s individual experiences were taken into account, it would make the findings a bit more credible. I realise anonimity is probably key, but who are all these people who’ve taken part I wonder.

  2. Jill – focusing on individuals is another issue around communicating science with the media. They often take one person’s experience and extrapolate that to be representative of everyone or at least “millions” of people. This is a “trick” that charity PR often uses – adds a strong emotionality that overcomes any rationality of data.

    I am keener that the science behind studies is robust and that PR/media/scientists explain statistics and findings in a way that doesn’t seek to twist or extrapolate them.

    But I think it is inevitable that everyone has an agenda – so for the media they try to generate strong headlines and personalise as a story, and in this the actual wider context is lost. Although it would be good to see at least some attempt at balance or avoiding over hyping.

    For example, a friend who has diabetes checked out the story from the other week about stem cell research – which turned out to be long term, small sample, newly diagnosed, young patients etc. That is, not the “diabetes cure around the corner” approach the media would have you believe.

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