According to Erene Stergiopoulos, the Science Editor here at The Varsity, the trouble begins when a journalist starts trying to translate research that they barely understand themselves for a general audience.
Says Stergiopoulos, “There is a big problem with communication between academic science and the media. They speak different languages.
“It’s not rare that science articles miss the point entirely. As a science student myself, I can definitely sympathize with researchers who have borne the face-palm frustration of having their work misrepresented because of the media’s headline-deadline driven work-scheme.”
To demonstrate just how convoluted science reporting can get, let’s take a look at Exhibit A: an issue that has been making headlines in mainstream media — and quite contradictory ones at that.
The chiropractic treatment of children has created quite a stir amongst practicing professionals and story-seeking journalists alike.
Is it good? Is it bad? Do we even really know?
According to the Ontario Chiropractic Association, children and youth benefit from chiropractic care to treat muscle and joint problems. Yet there are far too many media rebuttals out there for the average reader to ignore.
Recently, the Centre for Scientific Inquiry published an article titled “Keep Chiropractors Away From Children.” If that isn’t an attention-grabber, it’s hard to say what is.
University of Toronto graduate and chiropractic researcher Dr. Jason Busse attributes some of the inconsistency in the media reports to the disconnect between the journalist and the scientist.
Explains Dr. Busse, “There is often a more complicated answer even if it seems simple.”
“When there are many different levels of quality of study out there — as with anything — some are better than others. I think it can be difficult in certain cases even for educated consumers to differentiate.”
A scientific review conducted by Dr. Kim Humphreys of the University of Zurich in Switzerland found the likelihood of adverse, or negative effects on children who have received chiropractic treatment to be slim to none.
The three studies that comprised the review dealt with nearly 2,000 pediatric patients — which is quite a substantial number — and unfavorable side-effects resulted just over two percent of the time.
“When a reporter has to take a sound bite for their article it becomes very easy to misconstrue information,” says Dr. Busse.
Typically there is little controversy surrounding the chiropractic treatment of conditions such as sprains, strains, and sports injuries in children, but when looking at conditions that are not as well understood, like ear aches or colic, it is far less clear.
Infantile colic, where an infant has periods of uncontrolled crying, tends to be treated with what is known as a diagnosis of exclusion.
Explains Dr. Busse, “Your child is crying, we don’t know why, we’re going to say it’s colic.”
“The situation right now is that when parents have tried some of the more conventional approaches towards the management of colic without success, they have branched out to look for other options. They look at a trial of therapy with a chiropractor to see if it provides some relief for their child.”
Now here’s where the media might go into an unjustifiable frenzy: if the chiropractic treatment helps some children, an inference is made that the treatment may be addressing the cause.
“I think there’s a high risk that scientific research can take a life of its own once it gets into the media,” says Dr. Busse. “Controversial stories are exciting and they sell. Shocking headlines move newspapers. There’s no doubt about it.”