How science media stories work
Good science reporting should be accurate and should put research conclusions in context. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes news stories about science are reported in such a way as to grab attention, rather than reflect science accurately. This can lead to people losing trust in science because it may appear to 'say one thing one day and another the next'.
Reporting science accurately
Often the claims that media reports make about a research study do not match the conclusions of the researchers who carried out the study. The conclusions may be similar, but media reports may leave out crucial details which change the meaning of the research. This isn’t necessarily the fault of journalists, as sometimes research institutes promote their research with press releases that leave out crucial information in an attempt to make their research as newsworthy as possible.
Headlines are often misleading. You may have noticed headlines that are different to the story told in the article. This is because headlines are often written by an editor or subeditor, not the journalists who wrote the article. Often accurate stories may have inaccurate headlines. If an extraordinary claim is made in the headline, you should check that the rest of the article says the same thing.
Putting research findings in context
If the findings of a study are surprising, controversial or contradict previous studies, journalists should put those findings into context by reporting on what conflicting evidence already exists. For example, if a newspaper article were to say that a new study claims that eating an apple a day will kill you, whereas all other 'apple research' suggests they are good for you, a well reported newspaper article would make it very clear that this result should be looked at critically.
If an individual study contradicts many other studies, it could have been affected by bias or confounding, or the different outcome could simply be down to chance, especially if it is a small or poorly designed study. The bigger and better designed the study is, the less likely the result is to be an accident or a result of bias, and therefore the more seriously scientists will consider the unusual result.
One way journalists provide context is to get quotations from other scientists in the field, who might agree with the new research, or might point out shortcomings. However, you should be aware of journalists creating false balance[external link]: even if 99% of scientists agree on an issue, journalists will often seek out one who disagrees to give a counterpoint, which can make the issue seem more controversial or uncertain than it actually is.
Because of the risks of relying on individual studies, scientists and health policy makers prefer to pull together all the available evidence in systematic reviews and meta-analyses to see what the overall consensus is before they make decisions. Therefore, it is always good to be wary of any media stories that report only on the conclusions of a single study.
For more information about how science media stories work, see I Don't Know What To Believe[external link] from Sense about Science.