Every day new findings from research studies, often on issues relating to health, education and the environment that have important implications for readers, are described in the media.
This coverage is often highly relevant in informing the choices people make about issues that affect them, but how confident are people in assessing the science and methods behind the latest headline?
How easy is it to assess the absolute risk of eating red meat or drinking coffee? Accessing the original research papers can be difficult or even expensive, and where people are able to get hold of the source material, it may be inaccessible without specialist knowledge.
In order to engage members of the public in exploring research in the media, a group of members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) established the Research the Headlines blog. In typical posts, we take recent media coverage of research as a starting point, discuss the sourced research in greater detail, outline what it might mean for the reader, and allow them to reach a better understanding of what the study involves.
Our blog was inspired by the successful NHS Choices Behind the Headlines project, but the Research the Headlines members developed this work in several ways.
Research the Headlines moves beyond a focus on health-related stories, with posts coming from researchers and professionals spanning the diverse backgrounds within the Young Academy of Scotland – from psychology, economics and history to astronomy and social policy.
Among the most read blog posts we have published are pieces discussing research about the predictability of weather forecasting, health issues around alcohol consumption, and myths about the refugee crisis.
Research the Headlines complements existing blogs by taking an educational approach. A special series How to Research the Headlines, provides 10 top tips on interpreting media reporting of new research.
The series is often referred to by our writers in their regular posts, as a means of highlighting the simple, but recurring, issues in research as reported in the media, explaining how to weigh up the evidence, and how research is conducted.
There is also a Talking Headlines series where well-known researchers, journalists and bloggers are interviewed to gain their insights into what goes on behind the headlines. The blog also has a section called Under the Radar which highlights stories that have been missed by the media, such as China’s “unknown” lunar telescope.
The Research the Headlines group also engage directly with children and young people. We ran a very successful outreach project Rewrite the Headlines in which YAS members travelled to more than 80 schools across Scotland, including rural and deprived areas, to engage primary school children in workshops.
By focusing on our top tips, such as ‘Don’t stop at the headline,’ we helped children to explore issues such as whether headlines fairly reported the research and whether the underlying research could be flawed.
The project included a competition and the winning school, St Roch’s Primary and Hearing Impaired School in Glasgow, received an award for their insightful explanation of the concept of risk. They encountered the issue within the context of media reporting on the risks of eating processed meat and cancer.
We are very keen to ensure that all those involved in the coverage of research evidence in the media recognise their role in ensuring research is discussed accurately and in a way that is accessible to the general public.
There are several points in the process from lab to headline where inaccuracies can creep in and the group firmly believe that the onus is on everyone involved in the process to prevent this – the researcher, press office, as well as the journalist reporting on the research. This shared responsibility can help to ensure that reporting of research is accurate, as well as being presented clearly and understandably. You can read the Research the Headlines blog, and find out more about our work at https://researchtheheadlines.org.
Sinéad Rhodes is an Emeritus Member of the Young Academy of Scotland and the founder of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland Research the Headlines project.