Don’t judge this article in the Scientific American by its headline: “Neuroscience Coverage: Media Distorts, Bloggers Rule”. The headline implies that the scholarly research behind the article simply regurgitates the tedious debate about whether journalists or bloggers better serve the interests of truth and balance. In reality, the report by the researchers at The University College of London raises and answers far more important questions about how the media can distort neuroscience discoveries and engender broad public misperceptions about the human brain and consciousness.
In some respects, the study — Neuroscience in the Public Sphere — supports an argument that hardly needed further support; namely, the researchers showed that the media often sensationalize and politicize neuroscientific research findings. Though not shocking, this finding serves as a timely and humbling reminder to the high-minded voices of traditional media who have made a hobby of ridiculing the mounting challenges to their waning authority.
Remembering Entremed: The Cure for Cancer
In 1998, The New York Times published a front-page article by Gina Kolata under the headline “Hope in the Lab: A Special Report – A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs that Eradicate Tumors in Mice.” Focused on two early-stage anti-angiogenesis drugs not even ready for human trials, the article described these product candidates as so promising that they might “cure cancer in two years.”
Not surprisingly, the story quickly rippled through the national media. Aside from giving false hope to thousands of patients, Kolata’s story also triggered a speculative frenzy in the shares of Entremed, the biotech company developing the two compounds.
The controversy grew more complex after several cancer researchers, including the ones quoted in the article, questioned the accuracy of the statements attributed to them. Then, we learned that Kolata was trying to score a $2 million book deal based on her coverage of the cancer cure. In a survey of science writers conducted soon after these revelations, 83 percent of the respondents agreed that Kolata had violated journalistic ethics. Apparently, these violations do not constitute a grave sin in journalism, merely a misdemeanor adequately remedied by a footnote correction. Kolata, in the meantime, continues to serve as The New York Times science writer.
Of course, Kolata’s cancer-cure story cannot indict an entire profession, but it does exemplify what the University College researchers eloquently confirmed: news organizations remain far too tolerant of sensationalist treatment of important subjects such as cancer and neuroscience, among others.
The rise of citizen journalism understandably irritates some professional journalists who see the trend as an intrusion of Vox Populi into the gated community of professional journalism. Many voices of traditional media like to caricature the growing influence of the blogosphere as a flood of ignorance polluting the global public square. The same critics also resist the increasingly inescapable conclusion that the broadening segment of enlightened bloggers performs an invaluable service: it exposes and compensates for the failures of traditional media.