This week the Telegraph ran the headline â€śWind farms blamed for stranding of whalesâ€ť. â€śOffshore wind farms are one of the main reasons why whales strand themselves on beaches, according to scientists studying the problemâ€ť, 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 â€śBeaked Whales respond to simulated and actual navy sonarâ€ť, would see that the study looked at sonar, and didnâ€™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 â€śWhales scared by sonarsâ€ť). Now, I have higher expectations of academic institutions than media ones, but this release didnâ€™t mention wind farms, certainly didnâ€™t say they were â€śone of the main reasons why whales strand themselves on beachesâ€ť, 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.
This, of course, is a major problem outside of science reporting as well – journalists reporting social science work commonly distort findings to make stories more exciting – more `clickable’. This would be ok if we could check up on them, but often finding the original research involves bunging the author’s name into google with a few key phrases and hoping you have access to that particular journal. This gives journalists a huge, scary advantage in information control.
Academic institutions could play a better role in information control – press releases are often eagerly shoved at the door and are usually over-optimistic about any results in hand. Maybe we could require that academic research which is highlighted in the press cannot be gated, or at least that there should be something more explicit than a press release which allows readers to understand some of the fine detail.
It could also be that a web-based blogging culture might overturn these norms – Goldacre points out that bloggers start from a position of zero credibility (I mean, come on, I’ve got a picture from The Matrix at the top of this post), so we have to link a lot more so people know we aren’t just making it all up. I’m not quite so optimistic about blogging culture – but it is a start.