We here at Simply Statistics are big fans of science news reporting. We read newspapers, blogs, and the news sections of scientific journals to keep up with the coolest new research.
But health science reporting, although exciting, can also be incredibly frustrating to read. Many articles have sensational titles, like “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer”. The articles go on to describe some research and interview a few scientists, then typically make fairly large claims about what the research means. This isn’t surprising - eye catching headlines are important in this era of short attention spans and information overload.
If just a few extra pieces of information were reported in science stories about the news, it would be much easier to evaluate whether the cancer risk was serious enough to shut down our Facebook accounts. In particular we thought any news story should report:
- A link back to the original research article where the study (or studies) being described was published. Not just a link to another news story.
- A description of the study design (was it a randomized clinical trial? a cohort study? 3 mice in a lab experiment?)
- Who funded the study - if a study involving cancer risk was sponsored by a tobacco company, that might say something about the results.
- Potential financial incentives of the authors - if the study is reporting a new drug and the authors work for a drug company, that might say something about the study too.
- The sample size - many health studies are based on a very small sample size, only 10 or 20 people in a lab. Results from these studies are much weaker than results obtained from a large study of thousands of people.
- The organism - Many health science news reports are based on studies performed in lab animals and may not translate to human health. For example, here is a report with the headline “Alzheimers may be transmissible, study suggests”. But if you read the story, scientists injected Alzheimer’s afflicted brain tissue from humans into mice.
So we created a citizen-science website for evaluating health news reporting called HealthNewsRater. It was built by Andrew Jaffe and Jeff Leek, with Andrew doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. We would like you to help us collect data on the quality of health news reporting. When you read a health news story on the Nature website, at nytimes.com, or on a blog, we’d like you to take a second to report on the news. Just determine whether the 6 pieces of information above are reported and input the data at HealthNewsRater.
We calculate a score for each story based on the formula:
HNR-Score = (5 points for a link to the original article + 1 point each for the other criteria)/2
The score weights the link to the original article very heavily, since this is the best source of information about the actual science underlying the story.
In a future post we will analyze the data we have collected, make it publicly available, and let you know which news sources are doing the best job of reporting health science.
Update: If you are a web-developer with an interest in health news contact us to help make HealthNewsRater better!