How to get in The Daily Mail, or any other quality newspaper…

Posted on December 20, 2012

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I don’t think I am saying something earth shocking when I say that when scientific work is translated into health stories for the daily newspapers, this is not always done with the kind of rigour one would have hoped. I do not know that much about many other countries, but I get the impression that in the UK, we are particularly skilled in publishing ‘breakthrough’ results in the press that quickly turn out to be not such breakthroughs as well (but unfortunately, that second part is hardly ever published…). A particularly nasty event, and one for which we see the results now, was the way the MMR vaccine controversy (or scare) (link) was handled in the UK press (link). This is an important issue, and because researchers and journals are increasingly pushed to get their work into mass media to raise its profile, this is a problem that will continue to stay with us for the foreseeable future(*) . Some of my work, on mobile phones and cancer, has also made it into the media and it does me enormous proud that I have officially been covered in the Daily Mail and The Daily Express, while it also travelled across the globe and made it as far as, for example, Dubai.  I did not, and it pains me to acknowledge this, make The Sun….

Work has been done to examine what gets into the press, what types of material are covered, the sources used, how journalists use the literature to produce newspaper articles, and many more, and if you are particularly motivated to get your work into a Tabloid then this may be a good place to start informing yourself. However, recently some interesting new work conducted by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London on this topic was published in the journal Public Health. It’s title was “Analysis of health stories in daily newspapers in the UK”, and the abstract and link to the full paper can be found here.

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The main aim of the paper was the development and validation of a quality assessment tool to assess the quality of reporting of health-related articles in British newspapers. I don’t really want to get into the tool itself because: (a) yes, it is based on a systematic approach and includes the levels of evidence develop by the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine (www.cebm.net), but (b) at the end of the day it’s a list of criteria with scores attached to it, over which we can performance-reviewdebate forever. I for example have an issue with the RCT-fetish that seems to be driving Evidence Based Medicine community and the lack of appreciation for the ‘scientific weight’ of observational epidemiology, but essentially these are details. If pressed…ok, just a little…I would further say the scores for 21 criteria (can be found in the Appendix here) lack any hierarchy, and improvement of the tool would be fairly straightforward if different weights would be assigned to the impact of, or example, Criteria 2 “Does the article cite an author from the journal paper?” compared to Criteria 6 “Does the article compare statistics, are they misused or misrepresented?” . But let’s not dwell on the details, and let’s just go with the assumption the methodology is valid and robust. Mainly because the results are quite interesting and, if you plan to get your science published in The Daily Mail or The Sun (you know, to raise your profile), there a couple of pointers. I have to say though that most of the results of this study will (I suspect) not come as a huge surprise to anyone…

 

So, the print editions of eight national newspapers were examined for 20 weekdays between 6 December 2010 and 17 January 2011 (I guess it took some time to write it up and get it published).  In total, 160 articles that pertained to human health and medicine and reported newly emerging results were included.

The first shocker of today is that the newspaper with the most (32%!) of all articles was The Daily Mail; who would have guessed…. The DM was followed by The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Express, The Independent, The Times and The Sun, The Daily Mirror and finally the Guardian with only 6 articles in that 20-day period. So unfortunately, if you are a regular reader of The Guardian then you are seriously deprived of new discoveries in the medical world.

I don’t think it comes as a huge surprise either that most of the articles covered cardiovascular disease (16%), cancer (~12%), endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases (~12% as well) and neurological diseases (also about ~12%). I am going to take a guess on the 3rd group, but I suspect that would primarily be around nutrition. These are all important diseases when related to the national estimates for mortality and morbidity but, as noted by the authors, only one article in that period related to respiratory diseases, even though asthma affects 8% of the population, and no articles covered musculoskeletal conditions; even though up to 20% of adults will go to their GP about this each year. So there you go, if you are a PhD student or Postdoc and you deciding on your research interests for the near future; and you do want to make it into the tabloids, go with cancer or cardiovascular diseases.

A third lesson for the attention-deprived scientist that can be distilled from this paper: Get your work published in the British Medical Journal or in The Lancet! 16 percent of the articles were based on publications from these two journals. If you have an issue with getting this done (and let’s face it, most of us will not, or only rarely, manage to get into one of these journals), then a 3rd good option would be to get your work into a conference or press release. I xlarge_shutterstock_69358054suspect, although this was not investigated, you should have some outrageous claim. That may be good news for some, because you could also skip the peer-reviewed by choosing this route…

 

As I mentioned earlier, let’s assume the quality assessment tool is beyond doubt. This then provides us with another couple of interesting results: Articles by a named reporter had a significantly higher quality score than anonymous articles, if the work was published in a higher impact journal this was correlated (well, moderately with r~0.25 (P<0.01)) with the quality of the paper, and longer articles were also associated with higher quality. Obviously, these are not independent points, but there you go.

And finally, I suspect what we have all been waiting for! Quality assessment and scores just begs for an official list. So, without further ado and from highest to lowest quality of health-related articles (or alternatively, which newspapers to take a bit more serious):

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   8. The Times

   7. The Daily Telegraph

   6. The Independent

   5. The Guardian

  4. The Daily Express

3. The Daily Mail

 2. The Daily Mirror

1. The Sun

 

…I do feel a lot better now, about the fact I never made The Sun.

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*: note that this is written on December 20 (2012) and with the Mayan calendar about to end, I have been informed this may well be my last piece….with this pending Apocalypse tomorrow.

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