This article has been subject to a clarification by the author. You can read the full clarification here.
Two years ago Oxford University neuroscientist Prof. Dorothy Bishop established the Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation of a scientific paper in a national newspaper, judged according to the number of factual errors in the piece. The prize is awarded based on a scoring system of a point per error in the body of the piece, two points per error in the subtitle and three points per error in the headline. This year the Daily Mail took the prize with a blinding twenty-three points in one article. In fact when judging the article against the research it was supposed to be about it was pretty difficult to find a sentence that didn’t contain an error.
The article that won the award was my nomination, a Daily Mail article titled “Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory”. In the words of Prof. Dorothy Bishop, “the academic paper is not about cannabis, smoking or schizophrenia”.
It’s easy to pick on “hacks” for misrepresenting science. Few journalists are trained to analyse scientific research and we could spend all day talking about the endless mitigating factors such as that it is editors who write the headlines and demand stories that sell copy rather than stories that are necessarily truthful. What is inexcusable is when journalists have not simply failed to understand the facts before them but have deliberately misconstrued the evidence. Recently, the Daily Mail published a story with the headline “Killed by Cannabis“, about a young man who the Daily Mail claimed died as a result of consuming cannabis. It is clear that the Daily Mail published the story in the full knowledge that this was not the case because the very same article contains a quote from the coroner who stated that “the awful events that took David’s life weren’t directly related to the fact he had taken cannabis but potentially fairly innocuous substances – alcohol being another obvious example – may not in themselves cause death but may impact upon behaviour in ways that put lives at risk”. In this instance, so typical of the Daily Mail, the headline not only misrepresented reality but failed to even fulfil the basic requirement of accurately describing the content of the article.
Last week the Daily Mail was declared the most read news website in the world. This is a watershed moment. The Daily Mail’s science reporting has become routinely discredited for years but it has only become more popular. In journalism it seems the old adage really does ring true, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Less than a week since the editor of the Daily Mail was awarded the Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation for the “Just ONE Joint..” article (note the emphasis on the ONE, in capital letters, wrongly implying it is a fact as opposed to a number made up on the spot), the Daily Mail has used the same formula again, headlining an article A daily can of diet fizzy drink ‘increases risk of heart attack or stroke’. Except, that is neither true nor is it the headline you will see if you post the article on Facebook. The Daily Mail use the crafty tactic of using their trademark formula in the HTML tag, so that if you post the article on Facebook, you see a different, slightly more controversial headline, starting with “Just one can”. The “just one” claim is repeated in the first line of the article with the added caveat “drinking just a single can of diet fizzy drink every day” and bewilderingly by line three the term has evolved to “just a couple of daily cans”.
The actual research states clearly that the “number of daily diet soft drink consumers (in the study) is too small to efficiently examine a dose-response relationship”. The paper also states clearly that the researchers “observed no elevated risk of stroke”. In fairness to the Daily Mail, by the end of the article, if you make it that far, you learn that the research establishes no causal link, rather a “potential association” but that is certainly a very different thing from what the headline and the bylines claim. This is known as the “Caveat in Paragraph 19”. This is a worrying trend because according to eye tracking research conducted by the Poynter Institure, the average newspaper reader rarely gets more than half way through an article, let alone to the mythical paragraph 19!
An obvious explanation for the reported finding is that people who drink diet drinks are more likely to be overweight and as the research describes, they are also more likely to fit in to a whole sub-set of other criteria including being ex-smokers, being white and having already suffered cardiac or vascular disease. By the Daily Mail’s logic an alternate headline could be, a daily can of diet fizzy drink increases risk of being white.
A headline that reflected the findings accurately, would however, probably sell less papers. Any form of critical analysis in the article would (at least in a sane world) restrict the Daily Mail’s ability to produce such distorted headlines, perhaps one explanation why the Daily Mail’s science reporting is so devoid of an iota of critical thought. Critical thought doesn’t make for drop-everything-stop-the-presses headlines.
In doing some research for this article I have discovered that the “just one” formula is pretty popular with the Daily Mail. Also this week the Daily Mail published the article “Drinking just one glass of milk a day could boost your brain power”, I decided to check up on this claim. As the Daily Mail do not properly reference their articles I looked up the “International Dairy Journal” they referred to and found the relevant paper. In fact the paper had “not questioned (participants) as to portion or serving sizes” so again, the only way the Daily Mail could have got the “just one glass” idea is through the age old method of making stuff up, something they have recently been forced to admit they are very, very good at.
The “Drinking just one glass of milk a day could boost your brain power”,” headline conflicted strongly with the NHS headline response “No evidence milk boosts brain power”. The NHS report, (in their “behind-the-headlines” blog almost entirely devoted to debunking the Daily Mail) that “The Mail reported the study uncritically. Its suggestion that milk could help stave off mental decline is not supported by this research”. The NHS also reported that “the type of study reported cannot show cause and effect. All it showed was that, at one point in time, people who drank more milk performed better in mental tests than those who drank less”. This argument applies to the Daily Mail’s wealth of reporting on nearly everything, even when research explicitly restates the basic rule that correlation does not equal causation, the Daily Mail almost without fail report otherwise.
Another explanation for the Daily Mail’s cowing (excuse the pun) to vested interests is their dependence on lobbying firms for their news content. According to the NHS report, the “study was released to the press by a US PR company on behalf of the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, which is an industry-funded organisation set up by the US government to promote milk”. Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar. A vast proportion of what is printed as news is in fact reworded press releases from lobbying firms. Churnalism.com is a tool to help spot this, listing the precise percentage of news articles that are pasted from press releases, the percentage for Daily Mail articles is often over 90%.
The Daily Mail has also been known for disregarding facts in favour of a moralising crusade. Interestingly, when the Daily Mail reports scientific research that conflicts with their world view, the articles are often so minimalist they can barely even be categorised as news.
Like the boy who cried wolf, misinformation distributed under the label of science acts to discredit more meaningful but less headline grabbing scientific findings. A key example of this is in the Daily Mail’s reporting of cancer. The Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project charts “the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it”. The endless list contains a substantial number of things which the Daily Mail has reported cure or prevent cancer. The list even contains a large amount of items that purportedly both cure and prevent cancer including alcohol, aspirin, birth, breastfeeding, caffeine, calcium, cereal, the contraceptive pill, dairy products, dieting, dogs, eggs, and that’s just up to the letter E.
This week Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was chastised at the Leveson inquiry for an article stating that turning on the lights when using the toilet at night can cause cancer. The article is still online despite the researchers releasing a press release the day after the Daily Mail’s article was published stating that “there is no connection between illuminated, nocturnal calls of nature and cancer, despite what certain newspapers are claiming”. The University of Leicester press release goes on to state that “nowhere in their paper, which is published in the journal Cancer Genetics and Cytogenetics, do they mention trips to the toilet or anything even vaguely similar. That is entirely an invention of the Daily Mail.”
This merry-go-round of discredited science does no favours to science, the government or the public. The only winners are outlets such as the Daily Mail; and the lobbyists who convince the corporations they represent to pay them to convince the media to convince the public to buy slightly more of something that is probably not very good for them. This has to stop and the only way it will is if we get out there and explain this to the people consuming this hogwash.
The online article that won the Orwellian Prize for Journalistic Misrepresentation has still not been corrected despite numerous complaints lodged with the PCC way back in October. Incidentally, the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre chairs the PCC Editor’s Code of Practice Committee. Small world.