Public media, public data and the public

Should news media publish articles based on data-heavy reports if the report is not in the public domain? No. Should university-led publicly-funded research be released in a restricted way in breathless press releases and kept behind pay walls? No. 

Sadly this happens very often. I suspect trying to get privately-owned media to do anything about this is hard – they are happy with a sensational headline and, not being publicly funded, have less “social” responsibility. But what about the publicly owned media, and the BBC in particular? And when the research is publicly-funded? Surely it should be in the public domain – for the public at the same time as for the media. Here’s a case study.

 I read with interest the BBC’s: “Girls face ‘sharp rise in emotional problems’” …… screen shot below.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 15.44.25

The article (in only summary form) in the Journal of Adolescent Health is hereThe breathless UCL press release is here and with screen shot.

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 16.39.03

The press release tries to pump up the story. It’s opening line is : “Emotional problems in girls aged 11-13 in England increased by 55% between 2009 and 2014″ The 55% sounds very large when it means going from 2 girls per class to 3. I think that describing it as a rise of 7 percentage points would have been better. The matching of the two samples at the two different time points also rings alarms. I feel uncomfortable about this research – which could be fine – but can have no access to any reassurance. And without access to the full detail how are we to know if the brief BBC report is accurate?

If we are going to accept being half blind by not being able to see the full report, robust journalism is required to verify the story on behalf of the readers. This article was not very well written – even naming the journal incorrectly (now corrected) – so the write-up of the analysis might not be accurate either.

This story appeared and reappeared on the radio and TV news all day long and spawned much wider coverage, yet it could be flakey. Will we ever know?

For what it’s worth, the writer of the story told me: “We have considered the issue of reporting on research behind paywalls before but feel this cannot always be avoided as it could prevent us from covering some important studies. But we do make sure we have access to the full paper and evaluate each study before we cover it. We spoke to the researchers in detail before deciding to report on this paper.”


2 thoughts on “Public media, public data and the public

  1. In praise of quantification – Is this the same item heard on today’s ‘Today’ programme c. 8:55? Breathless commentator “Girls aged 6 look at pornography …”. Interviewer failed to ask “What is your evidence? Do you mean ALL girls aged 6? Or lots of them? Or one or two? What do you mean by ‘pornography’?


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