The importance of reporting on science accurately

Scientists: how often have you had an important publication get picked up by the media, only to find out that the final output (newspaper article, 5 o’clock news report, whatever) got it completely wrong? Or didn’t highlight the most vital result?

News readers: How often have you read an article or report about a study that doesn’t make sense, or that seems so obvious you can’t believe they got a grant for it. What’s even worse is that you may be reading lots of articles, thinking that the results are interesting, when what you will never know is that the study didn’t find what the report says it found at all.

Drugs can affect your brain, but your
brain may also affect drug use.
Photo: © Cyberstock | 
Stock Free Images

A paper from my lab (not one that I was involved in) came out earlier this year about brain structure and cannabis use in adolescents. The local newspaper reported that the results showed that cannabis use affected how the brain develops in adolescents. In fact, it was the exact opposite. The longitudinal study actually showed that if adolescents had smaller parts of the frontal lobe at age 12, they were more likely to have used cannabis by age 16. This finding is a really big deal because it was the first one to look at if there were brain differences in adolescents before they started using cannabis. Until then, changes in brain structures related to heavy cannabis use were assumed to be mainly due to the damaging effects of cannabis. That’s not to say those don’t still exist, but now we also know that abnormal brain structure may lead to more cannabis use. This makes sense, because the frontal lobe is associated with planning, predicting consequences, and risk-taking.

It makes a world of difference if journalists understand the stories they are reporting on. They are the ones responsible for conveying the detailed and precise scientific findings to the public in a way that is easy to to understand, but still accurate.

Does anyone else have a story like this where the media mis-reported an important scientific finding?

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