“I married a horse”

November 8th, 2008 by Ben Goldacre in regulating media, regulating nonsense | 36 Comments »

* Ben Goldacre
* The Guardian, Saturday November 8 2008

Last week I failed to distinguish satisfactorily between the fantastical miasmatic theory of disease in the middle ages and the fantastical miasmatic theory of disease as meant by some homeopaths. This made no difference to my argument – that the science of a disease is more interesting than made up nonsense about it – but it was an error, it was mine, and there is no ignominy in clarifying that.

So you’re reading Woman’s Own, and you get to the “Real life – health” pages, and you see “Most people jump when the phone rings unexpectedly, but for Jackie Dewhurst, 39, it could be deadly”.

This was a first person story about Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands, under the headline A Phone Call Could Kill Me. “Now I have to avoid stressful situations at all costs,” says Jackie, “which means I’ve had to bid farewell to horror films, crowded buses and Saturday clothes shopping …

“I started working again as a kitchen assistant at a local primary school. At times I worry that the children might give me a shock, but my colleagues are all trained to give me an adrenaline shot should I have an attack.”

Addison’s disease doesn’t sound like that in any medical textbook I’ve read (apart from anything else you give hydrocortisone, not adrenaline). Your first thought may well be, rather unkindly, that Jackie Dewhurst, 39, is an idiot. Or a blagger, who has hoodwinked Woman’s Own for a couple of hundred quid. Or a fan of attention, perhaps, self-dramatising about her health.

She does also say: “I was walking to the shops near my home in Broughton, North Lincolnshire, when some kids wolf-whistled at me. I tried not to panic, but started to sweat profusely, then fainted. I awoke two days later in hospital, attached to life support.”

Worse, perhaps it’s all true. Her employers must be terrified about the potential for liability.

This is why Jackie is upset. She says the article is rubbish. She spoke to the magazine to raise awareness of Addison’s – which is easy to miss – in good faith, with the support of her patients group. She says they made stuff up for a better story. She is angry that they will not issue a clear correction.

I asked Woman’s Own if they had any evidence for their headline claim as Jackie says she has never said a phone call could kill her. They declined to comment. Jackie denies ever saying that she worries that the children might give her a shock. She does work in a school though, and she’s worried now what her employers might think. Again Woman’s Own declined to comment.

Jackie complained to the Press Complaints Commission. Woman’s Own mounted a successful defence, involving extensive reference to what were said to be the journalist’s contemporaneous notes from the interview with Jackie. The magazine had offered to publish an apology on the issue of adrenaline being wrong, a further article on Addison’s, and a letter from Jackie. And that was enough for the PCC.

But there is another issue here, whether Woman’s Own had an obligation to check the information. As Jackie says: “Even if I had said all the things they claim … surely the magazine would have had some responsibility to verify medical information before they published such claims?”

• Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk


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36 Responses



  1. warhelmet said,

    November 8, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    The PCC code of conduct says:-

    Accuracy

    i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

    ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

    iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

    iv) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

    Yes, well…

  2. peterd102 said,

    November 8, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    This is one of the reasons why i don’t read the papers at all. Try it! Youll be happier!*

    *or not

  3. Jeesh42 said,

    November 8, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Yet another example of the PCC being the lamest duck in the pond.

  4. S said,

    November 8, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Eek! Don’t call Woman’s Own a paper…they’ll get far above their station of “weekly ragazine”

  5. Sili said,

    November 8, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    Well, at least it wasn’t an axemurderer.

  6. warhelmet said,

    November 8, 2008 at 10:49 pm

    Does anyone remember the “Woman turned to stone” headline?

    I can’t remember where it was or the condition that the poor soul was suffering from but it was one of the most heartless pieces of journalism that I’ve ever seen.

  7. pv said,

    November 9, 2008 at 12:32 am

    Jeesh42 said,
    November 8, 2008 at 4:40 pm

    Yet another example of the PCC being the lamest duck in the pond.

    The PCC was created by and for the benefit of newspaper publishers. It has teeth as sharp as those of the SoH and, at times, it’s hard to believe they don’t fulfil the same function – which is basically to protect the interests of its members.

  8. Pro-reason said,

    November 9, 2008 at 2:33 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard a story of lower journalistic integrity.

  9. ossian said,

    November 9, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I don’t believe in the supernatural… pixies, goblins, jesus, journalistic integrity, the PCC, or Father Christmas.

    Journalistic Integrity is the Sunday Name of “honour amongst thieves”.

    The PMC is no better than the GMC. Self regulation is a farce.

  10. thom said,

    November 9, 2008 at 10:26 am

    What worries me is “Woman’s Own mounted a successful defence, involving extensive reference to what were said to be the journalist’s contemporaneous notes from the interview with Jackie”. That’s fine if one had reason to believe that the journalist’s notes were substantially accurate – clearly the evidence (accepted by Woman’s Own) is that they were inaccurate by omission or commission or a number of key points. Most journalist’s I’ve met record the interviews – a cynic might suggest that some journalists use notes precisely because it gives them license to ‘embellish’ the story.

  11. mikey baby said,

    November 9, 2008 at 10:38 am

    The same journalist perhaps writes advertorials for the pharmaceutical industry and is just used to making up crap.

  12. raygirvan said,

    November 9, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Rather reminds me of this one from last year: from the Daily Mirror, Brain bug beater (by Emily Cook, Health Correspondent).

    Docs baffled as Phil comes through meningitis 8 times … Medical miracle Phil Parry has baffled doctors by beating the deadly meningitis bug EIGHT times … Tests have drawn a blank, although Phil believes his rare blood type O is a factor … Phil’s doctor thought he had flu when he first contracted lymphonic meningitis 14 years ago”.

    “Rare bood type O”? Also, no such thing as “lymphonic meningitis” outside the Mirror piece and the earlier Birmingham Post piece, Meningitis victim baffles doctors.

    There is, however, a “lymphocytic meningitis”, and a further variant “benign recurrent lymphocytic meningitis” that fits the bill of repeated non-lethal attacks. Interestingly, the guy says in the Birmingham Post that his attacks are accompanied by mouth blisters and a rash. Benign Recurrent Lymphocytic Meningitis from Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 during a Summer Outbreak of Aseptic Meningitis?

  13. CDavis said,

    November 10, 2008 at 12:21 am

    I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms. Dewhurst may well have said, inter alia, the things that formed the core of the piece – however spun and selected the final story may have been.

    An interviewee may be encouraged to make statements that are individually OK, but when added together and spun, produce indefensible nonsense.

    I had a similar experience decades ago, but managed to disown my remarks in time. The interview was cancelled, and I’m bloody glad it was.

  14. smithers said,

    November 10, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Anyone seen the last series of The Wire? The reliance on journalists’ notes is woefully inadequate when it comes to verifying the truth of what was said. You’re essentially asking ‘do you really, really, promise that that this amazing copy you’ve come up with isn’t a work of fiction?’. Unless the interviewee has recorded the interview themselves the journos have got an almost unbeatable defence against a claim that they haven’t acurately recorded what was said.

  15. outeast said,

    November 10, 2008 at 11:17 am

    “You don’t mind if I use a Quick-Quotes quill do you Jackie?”

  16. Teek said,

    November 10, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    surely the magazine would have had some responsibility to verify medical information before they published such claims?

    if only…!!

    problem is, if there’s no enforcement of PCC code, if there’s no statutory mandate to punish publication of patent nonsense, magazines will carry on regardless. depressing.

  17. MickMoore said,

    November 10, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    As someone with Addisions I can confirm what a load of bӣ$(x the article is. The stress I would need to get into trouble is more likely to be a car accident or bottle in the face. No problerms with scary movies to date. However, this type of crap could easily make a sufferer think that there was new research to show that they were at a greater danger.

  18. Andy Dingley said,

    November 10, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Stress potentially fatal to someone with Addison’s?

    Well, I guess if the stress was the sudden appearance of nuclear missiles in Cuba, then you might get a bit worried.

  19. mikewhit said,

    November 10, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    “staff writers rarely record interviews because they don’t have the facilities to do so” – in this day and age ?

    Most mobiles have a ‘record from microphone’ option which while not ideal is surely a start – otherwise little MP3 players with mike input or even a pukka Olympus device can be had for around £50 or less.

  20. S said,

    November 11, 2008 at 2:18 am

    I used to work on a monthly, which wasn’t quite as bad as a weekly, but bore some of the worst hallmarks thereof. I also have acquaintances at weeklies.

    Particularly at a weekly, the pressures of a weekly print-day – with a much smaller team than is available to a newspaper – contributes to the same ill-advised cock-ups as are made by newspapers.

    But that’s by no means the sole cause – features journalists are unlikely to have any science or medical training or background. There’s commonly a bidding war with other weeklies to win the story from a news agency. Then you have to make sure you don’t get your ass-kicked for that £400 that was spent when you write an entirely accurate story, that turns out to be quite boring.

    So, they make contemporaneous notes…but I’m very surprised that the conversation wasn’t recorded down the line, which is the usual practice…unless, I guess, you don’t want there to be evidence lying around…

    And then they make a story out of the bare bones of fact, and by now they’re only working backwards from the cover-line that was written for the issue over a month ago.

    But let’s not leave the blame with them, because even IF they read it back to the contributor (good practice) it will pass a features editor, deputy editor, sub editor, editor, senior sub, editor again… you get the picture.

    And yes, somewhere in that chain, you would think someone would check that the fact they picked up from some dodgy depths of the internet, would get idiot checked.

  21. kim said,

    November 11, 2008 at 10:51 am

    Mike-whit and Pro-reason – not really arguing with you, just saying that in my experience, magazines don’t equip staff journalists with recording equipment. I don’t know why this should be – perhaps an expectation that any hack worth his or her salt should be able to do shorthand?

    Again speaking from experience, most (but not all) freelancers do record interviews. If you can do shorthand, it is easier from a journo’s point of view, because you don’t have to spend lots of time transcribing.

    What S says is absolutely right about the chain of people who can edit a story. Also, the pressure in women’s mags is to get a good story, so mags will often ask freelancers to source near-impossible case studies to fit the story, e.g. “I want a woman aged between 25 and 30 who tried to abort twins but one of them survived. And she must be good-looking.” That kind of thing.

  22. Ephiny said,

    November 11, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    On BBC news today: ‘Sudden noises danger for sisters’ news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7720725.stm

    Not sure why it’s news that two sisters in Wales have Long QT syndrome – it’s not a new medical discovery or anything, or even a new diagnosis for the girls involved. But the media do seem to love this particular meme (a shock could KILL me!!!).

  23. hils said,

    November 11, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    You need to read a brilliant book called ‘Flat Earth News’by Nicholas Davies which has a lot to say on this kind of reporting – ‘accurate’ and ‘true’ reporting can be misleading; as long as what is said in the article is accurate and true regarding what was said at the time of the interview, it’s irrelevant that the subject matter of what was said is inaccurate or not true. ie as long as the reporter writes that Chicken Licken said that the sky is falling, that’s accurate and true, it’s irrelevant that in fact the sky is not falling… It’s an eye opener.

  24. mikewhit said,

    November 11, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    “not really arguing with you, just saying that in my experience, magazines don’t equip staff journalists with recording equipment” – but any journalist who was any kind of journalist would always have their own recorder to hand … goes with the trilby hat with the green ‘Press’ ticket in the band !

  25. MedsVsTherapy said,

    November 11, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    “staff writers rarely record interviews because they don’t have the facilities to do so”

    ???? here in the u.s., the thrift stores are full of cheap cassette recorders. cassette tapes are still available.

    i have done interviews by handwritten notes and by tape recorder. regardless of medium, the story is ridiculous. i could come closer to reality purely by memory, then using ‘google’ to look up addison’s disease.

    but then again, this incredible secret knowledge i have is why i am submitting things to scholarly journals, not the weekly.

  26. S said,

    November 11, 2008 at 5:50 pm

    Hmm in my experience there is always at least one gadget that can record down the line from the phone, known as a “bug” (it records from the vibrations that make the noise in your ear…or you can get ones that record before it even gets to your ear) per writing team. And it’s unlikely there will be two interviews at once.

    Additionally, it can be reassuring for the journalist to have it on tape – even if you’re making notes and aren’t planning to transcribe the thing, you can fill gaps.

    But it’s absolutely right that the problem is far wider than simply claiming not to have the means whereby…

  27. thom said,

    November 13, 2008 at 1:58 am

    kim: just to be cheeky – you quoted me saying “some journalists use notes precisely because it gives them license to ‘embellish’ the story” when I actually said “Most journalist’s I’ve met record the interviews – a cynic might suggest that some journalists use notes precisely because it gives them license to ‘embellish’ the story.”

    I meant what _I_ said, not what you quoted. A tape recording might well have captured accurately what I said, but notes might well not have. I don’t believe you deliberately meant to misquote me – but the point is that trimming the linguistic hedge “a cynic might suggest” changes the meaning from one of asserting that at least one journalist does this, to suggesting that a case could be made that at least one journalist does this.

    For the record, I don’t think journalists – in general – use notes to make their work PCC-proof, but I suspect that it is a loophole that some journalists exploit. This may be deliberate and intentional (I suspect very rarely) or may be unintentional (rather common). Both a journalist’s memory of an interview and their interpretation of their notes will be biased by the way they interrogate their memory. Assessing the accuracy of one’s own memory is a remarkably difficult thing to do.

    P.S. I accept entirely that just picking on the journalist – here or in other cases – is a tad unfair. The magazine has editorial responsibility and may well have mucked around with the content.

  28. mikewhit said,

    November 13, 2008 at 7:02 pm

    And yet the Beeb is hauled over coals and fined for ‘fixing’ phone-in comps, whereas this inaccuracy is allowed by the PCC.

    I think the best advice for anyone who agrees to be interviewed for whatever purpose is to MAKE THEIR OWN RECORDING.

  29. kim said,

    November 14, 2008 at 11:27 am

    thom – correction accepted. Apologies.

    My broader thoughts on this are that it’s fairly common practice in some (not all) women’s magazines to embellish true life stories. The fault rarely lies with the individual journalist. (I don’t write for women’s mags myself, so this is based on conversations with freelancers who do write for them.) A lot of freelancers feel caught between an obligation of fairness to the case study and the desire of the magazine for a good story. I don’t really know what it’s like for staffers, except that once you start thinking embellishment is the “normal” way of going about things, then you forget your obligations to the facts.

    About the recordings – I wasn’t trying to imply that recording equipment was expensive or complicated or anything, just that because (for some reason) most mags don’t provide that equipment, it becomes normal not to use it. Who wants to be the odd journo out, recording every phone interview?

    BTW, an excellent piece by Nick Davies in today’s graun about the Jersey reporting:

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/14/comment-modern-media-jersey

  30. Robbo said,

    November 15, 2008 at 1:25 am

    Re: recording equipment. Recording off a phone line is harder than recording a face-to-face interview (although try recording an interview in a Chinese restaurant and see how that turns out). I remember going through about three bugs bought from stores on Tottenham Court Road before finding one that worked with both my work phone line and my tape recorder.

    However, at the same place (names withheld to protect the guilty), the MD (an editor and journo) didn’t want anyone recording their interviews, ostensibly because the written notes should be good enough to go on – which was odd because his shorthand was rubbish and he’d had to revert back to writing in longhand. He used to have a go at anyone he caught transcribing from a tape all the same, suggesting that they needed to become better journalists.

    I still recorded everything and kept shorthand notes in case of mechanical failure and because they’re quicker to get through if you only need to transcribe part of the interview.

  31. Suw said,

    November 21, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    I freelance as a journalist sometimes, and I record every interview I do. (Well, apart from that one time I thought the tape recorder was turned on but it wasn’t…)

    It’s a piece of cake to record phone calls these days. Just download Skype, buy some credit, install either Pamela (PC) or Call Recorder (Mac), call the other person and hit record. Doesn’t matter if you’re calling their mobile, landline or another Skype account – you get a two channel recording of everything you say and everything they say. I tend to find that the quality is so much higher than trying to record a face-to-face interview that I’d rather do stuff over the phone these days.

    There’s absolutely no reason not to record conversations nowadays. And if you’re ever being interviewed, ask them to do it on Skype, or ask to call them, and record it yourself. Or ask to respond to questions by email – it takes longer but it gives you the chance to think about what you’re saying.

    Turnabout, as they say, is fair play. ;)

  32. ruthseeley said,

    December 16, 2008 at 5:26 am

    This is precisely the reason I bought a copy of Arnold Sawislak’s little gem, Dwarf Rapes Nun: Flees in UFO, when it first came out.

  33. icqfullpatch said,

    March 29, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    “staff writers rarely record interviews because they don’t have the facilities to do so”

    ???? here in the u.s., the thrift stores are full of cheap cassette recorders. cassette tapes are still available.

    i have done interviews by handwritten notes and by tape recorder. regardless of medium, the story is ridiculous. i could sikiş come closer to reality purely by memory, then using ‘google’ to look up addison’s disease.

    but then again, this incredible secret knowledge i have is why i am submitting things to scholarly journals, not the weekly.

  34. icqfullpatch said,

    March 30, 2009 at 11:51 am

    Anyone seen the last series of The Wire? The reliance on journalists’ notes is woefully inadequate when it comes to verifying the truth of what was said. You’re essentially porno izle asking ‘do you really, really, promise that that this amazing copy you’ve come up with isn’t a work of fiction?’. Unless the interviewee has recorded the interview themselves the journos have got an almost unbeatable defence against a claim that they haven’t acurately recorded what was said.

  35. icqfullpatch said,

    April 1, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    Hmm in my experience there is always at least one gadget that can record down the line from the phone, known as a “bug” (it records from the vibrations that make the noise in your ear…or you can get ones that sikiş record before it even gets to your ear) per writing team. And it’s unlikely there will be two interviews at once.

    Additionally, it can be reassuring for the journalist to have it on tape – even if you’re making notes and aren’t planning to transcribe the thing, you can fill gaps.

    But it’s absolutely right that the problem is far wider than simply claiming not to have the means whereby…

  36. icqfullpatch said,

    April 1, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Somewhat off topic perhaps, but I find it particularly irritating to see magazines of this type provided for patients in waiting rooms in hospitals/GP surgeries etc. In addition to the questionable case studies, they quite often include ‘helpful’ advice on homeopathic remedies, adverts for mail order magnetic therapy bracelets and the like, and I wonder if sikiş videoları reading all this in a clinical setting might lead some patients to make incorrect assumptions about the veracity of such nonsense. Possibly the most worrying thing is that this reading material is usually supplied by staff.

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