Top tips for health, beauty and science journalists by Hilly Janes

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DSC_0023Our top notch panel covered a lot of very useful ground at ‘Get your facts right – how to be a hype spotter’, an evening generously hosted by L’Oreal at their London headquarters in January. The speakers were Peta Bee, award-winning freelance health and fitness journalist, running coach and author of a fascinating new book, The Ice Diet; Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre; Cherril Hicks, Health Features Editor of the Daily Telegraph and Katriona Methven, Director of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at L’Oreal. The chair was Anjana Ahuja, FT contributing writer, award winning science and health commentator and former Times science correspondent.

This is what WIJ member Karen Aldred had to say about the evening: “The composition of the panel was well thought out and had the right mix of skills and viewpoints. Thought and care had clearly been given in advance as to how the panel should be guided and chaired and it showed in the seamlessness with which the Q and A session flowed.”

It’s a vast area, but here’s my blog with some top tips that emerged.

If you don’t understand…

If you have an arts/humanities background you may get the impression that scientists are gods in ivory towers. In fact some of the best health/science journalists are arts/humanities types with a fresh eye and the willingness to ask basic questions.

Speak to the researchers, not the PR

Press releases about the latest research sometimes hype up the findings.This may be because press officers are under pressure to get media coverage, and universities want to enhance their reputations to attract funding. The release will often include the name and phone number of the scientists who conducted the research. Of course some press officers are brilliant, but if you suspect not, phone the researcher(s) directly – they often answer the phones themselves. They rely on newspapers to convey their expertise to the public and many are happy to explain their research in basic terms. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to ask what seem like stupid questions or insist on explanations that general audiences understand.

Who produced the research?

Look for studies by academics that have been published in a peer reviewed journal – ie scrutinised by academic experts in the field before publication. If the research was done by a PR firm for a commercial company, there may be vested interests in the results. Or did a company fund academic researchers, who may feel under pressure to produce favourable results? Companies are not obliged to publish all the findings of their studies and may hold back unfavourable results (tho this may change soon as a result of the All Trials campaign

Who took part in the study?

The number of people who took part in a study, and how they are recruited, varies hugely. This can skew the results. There are no hard and fast rules about size  – a well conducted experiment on one individual, like the paralysed stabbing victim who has recently regained mobility after nasal cells were transplanted into his spine, clearly worked on him. But an online survey by say, a nappy manufacturer, of a small group of self-selecting parents is too biased to be reliable.

Look out for RCTs – randomised controlled trials That means everyone in the trial is randomly assigned to a control group (with no drug, or a placebo) and a test group (that gets the drug). Another way of trying to ensure unbiased results is a blind trial, when the participants don’t know who was given the treatment and who wasn’t. In a double blind trial, the researchers don’t know either. So the gold standard is a double blind RCT.

Beware fruit flies…

If it’s medical research was it done humans? Studies on mice, fruit flies and yeast may produce exciting results but you can’t apply the findings to human beings. Further rigorous research must be undertaken on humans to demonstrate the same effect. That can take years.

….and ‘big breakthroughs’….

Scientific research is a jigsaw, the pieces evolve and get put together over time. Editors (particularly on news desks) will push writers for something new, but preliminary research that sounds life-changing may not stand up when further trials are conducted.

…. and percentages

Saying the risk of catching/developing Y disease increases by 50 per cent, or doubles because of a type of behaviour, or environmental factor, can sound scary, and makes for grabby headlines. But it’s important to look at the actual numbers of people affected. If only a very small number of people are at risk of X in the first place, the fact that their risk doubles because of Y is not significant for the population at large. Not so sexy.

There is also the question of absolute risk and relative risk. We are all at risk of developing illness and diseases – that’s an absolute risk. But smokers, for example, have a greater risk relative to non-smokers of developing lung cancer. If you want to understand more, there is a clear explanation here:

…and campaigning scientists

Scientists and researchers who campaign about specific issues like fat or sugar in our diet may use scientific evidence to fit their arguments, rather than the other way round. If what they are saying contradicts everything that’s gone before, approach with caution.

Professional Associations

Many professionals such as therapists or nutritionists belong to professional bodies that have websites with editorial content and contact info for expert quotes. But they may not be regulated by law, have varying criteria for admission (eg professional qualifications) and different rules about ongoing training and supervision. Check out the membership rules on their websites and try to find out who is funding them – it may be, for example, the food industry.DSC_0006

Beauty and cosmetic ads

Claims made by the beauty and cosmetics industry in advertisements about the effectiveness of their products, as well as techniques like airbrushing, are regulated in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority. There’s useful PDF on their website outlining the rules. Companies like L’Oreal, which spends £1bn a year worldwide on scientific research, employ teams of staff to make sure they comply with the rules, which differ from country to country

Where to go for more info and help

There are lots of excellent blogs, websites and professional organisations that can help. Here are a few:

NHS Choices Behind the Headlines rapidly analyses hyped up media health stories and explains in lay terms what the research was really saying. – collates stories from relaible fact-checking blogs in one place. Hosted by which aims to equip people to make sense of science and evidence

ScienceDaily runs stories based on research across different disciplines.

EurekaAlert is another reliable source of evidence-based global science and health news.

Medical News Today also covers health stories in the news

British Dietetic Association is recommended for expert info on food and nutrition.

The Royal Statistical Society’s website has a resources section to help the public and journalists  understand the stats and data that we are bombarded with daily, but that may fox those of us who are not great at maths.

The Science Media Centre offers journalists rapid briefings on news stories, interviews with leading experts and background briefing notes on specific issues.

Professional organisations for journalists.

They all have websites with useful into, and organise training and networking events.

Association of British Science Writers

Guild of Health Writers

Medical Journalists Association