23 February 2007
I wish we all talked more about how scientific results are translated by the media. Fully understanding the assumptions and limitations of a study is challenging enough for those performing the research. In some ways, the journalists’ job is harder, finding lay language to summarize outcomes and implications without generalizing or ignoring uncertainty. I do not envy them the task.
Byron Calame, the public editor of the New York Times, recently discussed his paper's presentation of a study about marital status. On January 16, the front page read, "51% of Women are Now Living Without Spouse.” Calame’s response noted that in the study, “women” included females aged 15 and older; the Census set the lower bound at 15 to catch all married women. The original article did not call attention to the fact that teenagers living at home were counted as single women.
Apparently, when other journalists pointed out the misleading lack of clarity, some readers felt that they had been deceived. Is the “true” parameter just over 50% or just under? I would argue that the lower age bound set by the census is as reasonable as any. I also think that it doesn’t make much difference whether the percentage of women who are unmarried is a tiny bit over 50 or a tiny bit under (Sam Roberts, who wrote the original article, eventually made the same argument).
Regardless, Calame reports that an executive Times editor plans to spend more time discussing statistical results with colleagues who have expertise in the relevant fields. This seems like a great plan. I wonder how far this idea could be taken – how can researchers best work with journalists to successfully translate results?
A Crimson article published yesterday went so far as to refer to the “basic statistical measures—such as p-values or R-squared values,” or lack thereof, in a study conducted by Philip Morris. And when covering The New England Journal of Medicine’s discussion of stents for heart patients, The Times focused on the fact that some risks are “tough to assess.” This journalistic direction seems promising.