Uncritical reverence in CM reporting: assessing the scientific quality of Australian news media reports

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Lewis, M, Orrock, P & Myers, S 2010, 'Uncritical reverence in CM reporting: assessing the scientific quality of Australian news media reports', Health Sociology Review, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 57-72.

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Objectives: The study is an exploratory study of a media event in Australia based on the publication of two separate systematic analyses of complementary medicine (CM) therapies. The objective of the study was to measure the scientific quality of Australian newspaper media reports about two international peer-reviewed research papers reporting results on complementary medicines published in biomedical journals during Feb/March 2007. For purposes of clarity, we refer to the papers as the 'Antioxidant Study' (Bjelakovic et al 2007) and the 'Prenatal Multivitamin Study' (Goh et al 2007).

Methods: We sourced articles that were published about the two research papers in mainstream metropolitan and national Australian newspapers during February and March 2007. We then applied a model of analysis called the Index of Scientific Quality (ISQ) to measure the scientific quality of the news reports.

Results: We identified 14 newspaper articles and one newswire article about the Antioxidant Study and two newspaper articles about the Prenatal Multivitamin Study. Of the seven ISQ criteria, 'validity' and 'precision' were rated the least adequate, 'important consequences' of the research were reported partially in the Antioxidant Study and wholly in the Prenatal Multivitamin Study, and 'opinion from fact' was adequate in the majority of articles.

Conclusion: This exploratory study conveyed an overall inadequacy in the scientific quality of the newspaper reporting about the two CM studies in major metropolitan and national Australian newspapers. Whilst we found that journalists were careful to attribute opinions to their sources, their reports conveyed a very limited understanding of biomedical research methodologies and a subsequent incapacity to scrutinise these methodologies with rigour.

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