AFP’s wire piece included the association-causation caveat in paragraph four, before describing details of the association found by the researchers. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran the caveat in paragraph five and repeated it in several later paragraphs. Compare Discovery’s cautiously open-ended headline, “Does Soda Cause Violence?” with the inflammatory ones inaccurately claiming causation.
The discrepancy in the coverage makes this a great teaching moment for health, science, and risk reporting. There’s an obvious tendency to play up the dramatic aspects of stories and play down or omit the tempering or balancing aspects, which does an injustice to accuracy.
But coverage of the soda and violence study shows how a good story can be presented in interesting ways without over-dramatizing. And that is important both for public health and for the health of the news business. Distorted and over-dramatized coverage contributes to potentially unhealthy choices by individuals, and it fuels a growing mistrust in the press, feeding the decline in news consumption by people who are turned off by an industry that thinks that yelling is the only way to get the public to pay attention. It’s not.
News media Scream-a-Thons, particularly in the area of health and risk, may be chasing consumers away from news altogether, and undermining the business. Decent, straightforward, accurate and well-told stories can bring them back. A public that trusts journalism will pay for journalism. More careful coverage of health studies would be a good place to start rebuilding that trust.