(Washington, D.C.) – As February begins, many Americans’ New Year’s resolutions have already gone by the wayside, despite their best intentions. But the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation is asking those who write about science of food and health to resolve to continue evaluating scientific studies and claims with a critical eye—all year long.
Shrinking newsrooms, beat consolidation, and competition from emerging media are putting more and more pressure on journalists and the resources they have to report on important science and health advances. A 2009 survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists conducted for the Kaiser Family Foundation laid bare many of those challenges.
For instance, 65 percent of respondents rated the news media’s coverage of health care as only fair or poor. Fifty-six percent said health care coverage in recent years at their organization has gone down or stayed the same. And forty-four percent said their news organization reports stories based on news releases or news conferences, without substantial additional reporting, sometimes or frequently.
“In this age of an explosion of information sources, and self-appointed ‘experts’ claiming superior knowledge to those true experts with outstanding credentials in their fields, there is a need to get back to basics in how we evaluate the credibility of emerging science and the latest research study,” stated IFIC Foundation President & CEO David B. Schmidt. “Good science may not always be clear, but we know it when we see it.”
The IFIC Foundation and others make useful resources available to science writers and the general public to help them better judge the quality and credibility of scientific studies. “Improving Public Understanding: Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health,” colloquially known as the “Harvard-IFIC Guidelines,” is a resource for journalists, scientists, and other communicators. The guidelines comprise a series of questions communicators should ask themselves in evaluating scientific studies, such as: “Have you put the study findings into context? Have the study or findings been peer-reviewed? Have you applied a healthy skepticism in your reporting?”
Dr. Timothy Johnson, MD, MPH, a longtime medical editor for ABC News, sat on the advisory group that helped develop the guidelines. Upon their release, he said: “I think what the public wants is for us to be honest with each study as it comes along and try to put it into perspective, but keep reminding people that it’s the totality of evidence as it unfolds that warrants their attention.”
The IFIC Foundation has also produced the brochure “Evaluating Evidence.” And in November, the scientific journal “Nature” published “Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims,” some of which include factoring in studies’ sample sizes, and understanding that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.
Recent events in the news have shown the importance of these principles. A study in September 2012 by Gilles-Éric Séralini and others, which alleged a high incidence of tumors in rats fed corn produced through biotechnology, was later criticized roundly by the scientific community as fundamentally flawed. Séralini also placed unusual restrictions on journalists by requiring them to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from contacting other researchers prior to his announcement. The study ultimately was retracted in November 2013 by the journal that had published it.
The International Food Information Council Foundation is dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good. The IFIC Foundation is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. Visit http://www.foodinsight.org.