Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 19 March 2011
Why don’t journalists link to primary sources? Whether it’s a press release, an academic journal article, a formal report, or perhaps (if everyone’s feeling brave) the full transcript of an interview, the primary source contains more information for interested readers, it shows your working, and it allows people to check whether what you wrote was true. Perhaps linking to primary sources would just be too embarrassing. Here are three short stories.
This week the Telegraph ran the headline “Wind farms blamed for stranding of whales”. “Offshore wind farms are one of the main reasons why whales strand themselves on beaches, according to scientists studying the problem”, it continued. Baroness Warsi even cited it as a fact on BBC Question Time this week, arguing against wind farms.
But anyone who read the open access academic paper in PLoS One, titled “Beaked Whales respond to simulated and actual navy sonar”, would see that the study looked at sonar, and didn’t mention wind farms at all. At our most generous, the Telegraph story was a spectacular and bizarre exaggeration of a brief contextual aside about general levels of manmade sound in the ocean by one author at the end of the press release (titled “Whales scared by sonars”). Now, I have higher expectations of academic institutions than media ones, but this release didn’t mention wind farms, certainly didn’t say they were “one of the main reasons why whales strand themselves on beaches”, and anyone reading the press release could see that the study was about naval sonar.
The Telegraph article was a distortion (now deleted, with a miserly correction), perhaps driven by their odder editorial lines on the environment, but my point is this: if we had a culture of linking to primary sources, if they were a click away, then any sensible journalist would have been be too embarrassed to see this article go online. Distortions like this are only possible, or plausible, or worth risking, in an environment where the reader is actively deprived of information.
Sometimes the examples are sillier. Professor Anna Ahn published a paper recently, showing that people with shorter heels have larger calves. For the Telegraph this became “Why stilletos are the secret to shapely legs”, for the Mail “Stilletos give women shapelier legs than flats”, for the Express “Stilletos tone up your legs”.
But anybody who read even the press release, which is a readable piece of popular science itself, would immediately see that this study had nothing whatsoever to do with shoes. It didn’t look at shoe heel height, it looked at anatomical heel length, the distance from the back of your ankle joint to the insertion of the Achilles tendon. The participants were all barefoot. It was just an interesting nerdy insight into how the human body is engineered: if you have a shorter lever at the back of your foot, you need a bigger muscle in your calf.
Once more, this story was a concoction by journalists, but more than that, no sane journalist could possibly have risked writing the story about stilletos, if they’d linked to the press release: they’d have looked like idiots, and fantasists, to anyone who bothered to click.
Lastly, on Wednesday, the Daily Mail ran with the scare headline “Swimming too often in chlorinated water ‘could increase risk of developing bladder cancer’, say scientists”. There’s little point in documenting the shortcomings of Daily Mail health stories any more, but suffice to say, while the story purported to describe a study in the journal Environmental Health, anyone who read the original paper, or even the press release, would see immediately that bladder cancer wasn’t measured, and the Mail’s story was a simple distortion.
Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. It’s also an interesting difference between different forms of media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, and so they must build it, by linking transparently, and allowing you to easily double check their work.
But more than anything, because linking sources is such an easy thing to do, and the motivations for avoiding links are so dubious, I’ve detected myself using a new rule of thumb: if you don’t link to primary sources, I just don’t trust you.