Be critical of scientific reporting, even outside of class

News outlets report on scientific research, but it’s often more about grabbing attention than keeping us informed

There’s no point in all this education if we’re going to let faulty reporting dupe us. Photo by Chris Ho / The Peak

By: Ben McGuinness, Peak Associate

You’re at the checkout, eyeing a chocolate bar. You’re well aware that it’s a slab of fat and sugar, so how do you justify grabbing one? Well, according to some sensational articles in a magazine on the rack or something that just got shared on Facebook, chocolate might just be healthy for you!

At SFU, we’re often asked to apply critical thinking to the information and theories presented to us. But this skill shouldn’t stop once our assignments are done. Every day, we’re bombarded with misleading information as a result of corporate agendas and attention-seeking viral media. As educated citizens, we should be the first to sniff out questionable information.

Chocolate is a frequent topic of misleading headlines and oversimplified articles. For example, an article from Live Science titled “Elderly brains get a boost from dark chocolate” reports that the flavanols (a compound found in many foods) in dark chocolate can be good for us. With a semblance of nuance, the article cites the researchers’ cautions that the topic needs further study, but also “that there is no harm in adding flavanols to a diet.”

A good journalist should place the findings being reported into real-life context. For example, the above article should let us know that the flavanols in chocolate could be good for us, but that the limited effect probably doesn’t cancel out the unhealthy impact of all the chocolate you’d have to eat to reap the benefits.

Part of a journalist’s responsibility to the public is to find important scientific research and report it in layman’s terms. But as news media increasingly becomes an industry instead of a service, and as attention grabbing headlines become vital to online virality, the temptation grows to blow scientific findings out of proportion for dramatic effect.

A more insidious side of this problem is that the search for exciting science to publish goes hand-in-hand with corporate public relations. An editorial from Vox describes how the chocolate industry turned dark chocolate into a “health food” by funding research into its health benefits, which just so happened to come out positive the majority of the time.

Journalists and bloggers need to be transparent about their reporting processes, and the limited practical application of the studies they report on. This includes avoiding attention grabbing headlines that mask the details of the study behind the fun information which comes first. If readers don’t get through the full article, they are likely to take away an overly optimistic yet incorrect message.

Unfortunately, readers cannot blindly trust the news to do it right. As students, we have to keep our critical thinking caps on. We should also limit how much time we spend surfing headlines in our social media scroll, because even the best of articles might have misleading titles. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is!

Let’s be real, we’re going to reach for that chocolate bar with or without the science to justify it. But that decision should be our own, not the result of bad reporting on science.