February 20, 2007

Behind the Scenes: Media Debate Placement of Medical Research

Every day I receive summaries of newly published or about-to-be-released medical research and have to decide what I should write about on this blog. Sometimes it’s obvious: a study’s findings are of such urgency that they must be publicized immediately. Other information is more nuanced and requires some deliberation before commenting publicly.

It’s an ongoing process — and one that newspapers face every day.

Timothy J. McNulty, the Chicago Tribune public editor, leads off his most recent column with the question: “When does a story on medical research deserve to be on the front page?”

The answer, based on editors’ decisions at the paper over the past year, “is neither science nor art but the result of strong and sometimes impassioned debate,” writes McNulty.

He offers recent examples of studies that prompted newsroom debate, including the study recently published in the British Medical Journal indicating that moderate amounts of caffeine did not cause premature or low-weight births:

Some editors argued to put it on the front page. The study had sure readership value, especially among women who had given up coffee during pregnancy because they worried about premature delivery and low birth weight.

Another editor countered that coffee is a popular research topic and reports are often contradictory. The science behind the study under consideration was excellent, but the real test would come only when other scientists replicated the results. The editor opposed giving the report an implicit stamp of approval by putting it on the front page.

In the end, editors split the difference, making a teasing reference to the story on the front but placing it on Page 9.

And here’s a look at how the Trib editors handle other popular — and controversial — topics:

Stories on new heart drugs, hormone replacement therapy and how often women should get mammograms are assessed not only for the science behind them but for their importance in relation to other studies on the same topics.

A Dec. 15 front-page story headlined “Breast cancer cases plunge, study finds” with the subhead “Drop in use of hormone therapy a likely reason” was an interesting story about statistics compiled by the National Cancer Institute. But was it significant?

Again, there were competing views about whether it actually told readers anything useful. For the second year, the number of new breast cancer cases declined, but some argued that did not constitute a trend and even the raw numbers did not signal that the tide had turned.

Other editors insisted that a drop in cases for the second year, for whatever reasons, was news enough because it showed there was movement in the dismal fight against these diseases. Their arguments prevailed. The article became the lead story that day.

In addition to posting columns like McNulty’s that provide a window into the newsroom decision-making process, more newspapers (and magazines) should take the Washington Post’s lead and publish the story placement online (section and page number) whenever possible. I read a lot of newspapers on my laptop, and I find it helpful to know whether the story was worthy of A-1 or if it was buried in a feature section.


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