Wednesday, 17 February 2010

responsible journalism? What's that then?

Whenever I write a blog or an article I always try to remain as factual as I can because I'm aware of the damage and problems that misinformation and bad reporting can have. So when I see really bad reporting by professional journalists who get paid to write what they do it really annoys me because it isn't exactly difficult to find things out about what it is you are reporting.
Is it lazy reporting, or jumping to conclusions? or dressing things up a bit for effect? I'm not sure, but it not doing your homework first can have a terrible effect - especially if what you are reporting is misleading about a very important subject.

This is something that is going to be discussed in great detail on Episode 37 of Righteous Indignation which is out on Monday 22nd. You should definetely listen in because it was one of the best discussions I've had in a long time.

On February 12th the daily telegraph incorrectly reported that Rhubarb could help treat cancer under the headline 'Rhubarb crumble – the new cancer-busting super-food.’
They claimed, and I quote:
“Researchers have found that the traditional favourite, like many red vegetables, contains cancer killing chemicals. And baking the plant for 20 minutes – like in a crumble or pie – dramatically increases their concentration.”
Although researchers at Sheffield Hallum university did indeed find that baking British garden rhubarb for 20 minutes in certain conditions before eating led to a significant increase in the levels of polyphenols, a chemical that has been shown in some tests to destroy or prevent the growth of cancerous cells, they certainly did not reach the conclusion that eating it could cure cancer.

Cancer Research UK released a statement in which Ed Yong, Cancer Research UK's head of health information, said: "Certain methods of cooking rhubarb may increase levels of polyphenols in lab tests, but it's a big leap to say that this will have a noticeable impact on the risk of cancer in real people. Rather than relying on a single food, our advice is to enjoy rhubarb as part of a varied diet high in fibre, fruit and vegetables and low in red and processed meat, saturated fat and salt."

The NHS also released an article on their website, saying:

“The Daily Telegraph today said that rhubarb crumble is the “new cancer-busting super food”. This news story was based on research to determine how cooking rhubarb would affect the amount of antioxidant chemicals it contains. Some scientists believe that antioxidants offer protection from diseases such as cancer, although it should be noted that this research did not directly look at any aspect of human health.

It will take further research to assess how cooking affects the breakdown of these antioxidant chemicals and how this may affect any health benefits from the food.
This research was inaccurately reported on by The Daily Telegraph. The published research did not investigate the effect of rhubarb extracts (or polyphenols) on cancer cells or human health in general. The study only looked at how the concentrations of these chemicals in rhubarb were affected by different cooking methods.”
Unfortunately, although these statements were issued in response to what can only be described as terrible reporting on the part of the Daily Telegraph, the story has spread around the web and a simple google search for the words cancer & rhubarb drums up many results that promote the idea that eating rhubarb will cure cancer. This is the damage that bad reporting can have because now this misinformation has spread.

People who suffer from cancer may cling to the idea that rhubarb will cure their cancer because the article released by the Daily Telegraph has given them false hope at a time when they are desperate for anything that will help them.

Why is it that journalists are allowed to report such incorrect information without being held accountable for it? It makes me so angry that people willingly promote ideas that have no fact to them, or twist the facts to make a headline - is it really that hard to get your facts straight?


  1. It's not hard to get the facts straight, but there are fewer journalists producing more "content" with less and less time to check the stuff passing across their desks. The same is happening to the wire services, meaning that it's increasingly easy to get rubbish and PR into mainstream news.

    Nick Davies' "Flat Earth News" is fantastic on how it happened, and the effects of it. As a bonus, it also give you a depressing insight into the world of the PCC and the Daily Mail.

  2. I've heard that mentioned lots actually so I'm going to have to get me a copy. Thanks.

    I still don't see how spreading misinformation can even be justified though. Hmm.

  3. They produce bigger and bigger editions with fewer and fewer journos. Increasingly they take copy straight off wire services, and sadly the wire services are running with fewer and fewer people too.

    The book is worth a read, as there's more to it than that, but that's it in a nutshell.