The Science News Cycle of Life: Rise, Fall, and Renewal

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Today a science story was born and killed in just hours: this morning science lifted our spirits with this finding that coffee made us live a little longer, Wonkblog's Sarah Kliff gets all smarty pants on us by debunking the finding with this contrarian headline: "No, drinking coffee probably won’t make you live longer." Instead of getting all bummed by Kliff's downer news, understand: for every study that comes out, a host of media outlets will report to one extreme, and then some smart guy or girl will come along and prove everyone wrong, digging into the study and using other research to show that the study does not say what we all hoped and dreamed. Then, that very study will come back full circle, acting as fodder for another ingenious reporter to debunk the next study about coffee and our health.

Studies are particularly susceptible to this type of sensationalization because all media outlets rely on press releases to both receive and understand new research. Sites like Science Daily and Eureka Alert post these press releases as soon as the embargo lifts. Since research and science is complicated, reporters rely on these sites not only to find the day's latest findings, but to understand what a 60 page write-up means for non-science people. University communications departments put the findings into nice digestible little sound-bites, complete with quotes from the researchers. And since they too want pick-up, they often slap their own snappy headline on the write-up. That coffee study, for example, had the following headline along with the National Institute of Health press release: "NIH study finds that coffee drinkers have lower risk of death." So that's where these news organizations get that idea in the first place. So, we see the following headlines:

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And so on.

Then, as news outlets have exhausted this tactic, we inevitably find someone, looking for a fresh angle, who either digs into the research, pulling out all the caveats, or, who points to all the contradictory research. Or does both. In this case, we have Kliff looking into the depths of the study. She also points to some earlier studies, which at one point got the very same treatment as this current finding.

This happens all the time. Remember that story about dinosaur farts from last week? Because of the Internet's love of both dinosaurs and fart jokes, this one got a lot of media pick up, inspiring headline's like Gawker's "Dino Farts Likely Caused Mesozoic Climate Change, Say Dino Fart Scientists" and our own "Jurassic Farts Caused Global Warming." Then, Smithsonian Magazine's Brian Switek brought us the other side. And the next time something about dino-farts comes through, some journalist will have this research to prove some point either for or against farts.

It would be easy to say that this all stems from journalistic laziness. But, just as the circle of life depends on all parts of the eco-system, so too does this cycle. If those communications directors never put those attractive headlines on their press releases, those first jouranalists would never notice said studies; never think of clever ways to tell the public about those studies; and never slap their own sensationalistic headlines on those studes. Without the borderline false headlines, we don't get the contrarian debunking part, which is when we generally learn what the research really says. Without the cycle we might not ever learn anything about science at all.

Image via Shutterstock by Zurijeta.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.