Subscribe to Criticism


How writers botched a mammoth story

Mammoth model

A Harvard geneticist announced that he is going to produce elephant embryos with mammoth genes, and more than 60 news stories had headlines like "Woolly mammoths to walk the Earth again." John Hawks says that more than just exaggeration was involved: "Journalists who actually dug into these numbers would have to cover this story very differently. Who would click on a story with an accurate headline? 'Forty-five mammoth genes in elephant cells, more than 4000 to go!'"

Mixed reviews for health press releases

Front page mockup

Kevin Lomangino summarizes a year of press release reviews on and the results are discouraging. Only a quarter to a third of releases scored well on three key criteria: "We think it’s important to review health care news releases because they frequently set the tone for subsequent coverage by journalists. If the news release includes exaggerations, there’s a good chance those exaggerations will make their way into news stories about the research."

Fake news and the conjunction fallacy

Sign reading

Mathematician John Allen Paulos writes that confirmation bias isn't the only basis for fake news: "The conjunction fallacy posits that we are more susceptible to believing untrue stories if they are more elaborate and specific. The more details there are in a news story (especially one, say about the nefarious connection of Clinton to a certain pizza parlor, secret code words, John Podesta, other stores and tunnels, etc.), the more plausible and engaging the account."

On statins and Alzheimer's disease

Lipitor box

Can statins prevent Alzheimer's, as recent news stories suggest, or is this just correlation-not-causation? Alan Cassels says the latter: "This may have been a soundbite that editors found irresistible, with news stories appearing around the globe, including China, the U.K., Singapore, Australia, and the U.S. The wildfire spread of this news demonstrated that axiom of Mark Twain’s that 'a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.'"

An Alzheimer's research story done right

PET scan of a human brain with Alzheimer's disease

Health news critic Gary Schwitzer praises the Star Tribune for injecting a dose of realism into an Alzheimer’s research report: "Interesting research from a researcher with an interesting track record, but nowhere near any human application or implication. It didn’t seem like a Herculean effort for the paper to report it in this way, but it stands apart from a lot of what we see in Alzheimer’s disease (and other health care news) reporting — or in PR news releases."

What's to be done about Tom Wolfe?

The Kingdom of Speech cover

The New Journalism icon's latest book, The Kingdom of Speech, "is a book situated at the intersection of inflammatory and ignorant" for what the author has to say about evolution, Barbara J. King writes. So, naturally, King suggests that readers should avoid the book, right? Actually, she says the opposite — that readers need to see what Wolfe says, then push back: "Read Wolfe, certainly. Then go read Darwin's beautiful, insightful and revolutionary words themselves."

Uncertainty and a breast cancer study

Bell curve drawing

Kevin Lomangino assesses coverage of a study on a genetic test designed to identify breast-cancer patients who can opt out of chemotherapy. Specifically, he examines how major news media handled the statistical uncertainty surrounding the study's results, which was disclosed in the paper's discussion section: "All of the four stories that I looked at related to this study called attention to the uncertainty surrounding this figure but with varying degrees of emphasis."

The media's role in distorting science


Did you read about the survey that said 82 percent of adults had "sexted" sometime in the past year? So did Robert Gebelhoff, who writes about the flimsy science behind that attention-grabbing statistic: "Examples like this are legion in the world of science journalism. As a result, the scientific community has lately been making an effort try to end the stream of misleading articles — going so far as to redesign the way academic journals review and publish studies."

An experts' beef about quote selection

Quotation marks

Forensic linguist Claire Hardaker tried her best to beg off responding to an insistent reporter's questions about the demographics of Internet trolls, but she finally gave in, sending a nuanced reply via email. "So what made it into the Telegraph, with its headline 'Why are most internet trolls men?' three whole weeks later?" she wrote. A four-word quote from her saying that there is “lots of anecdotal evidence” that most trolls are male. "Yeah," Hardaker concludes.

Web metrics and journalism's decline

Coffee cup

Jeff Wise interviews Gary Schwitzer of about the sorry state of health reporting in the media today, compared with years gone by: "Click rates just dominate. It is really sad to talk with 30-, 40-year veterans who know their stuff, and they know what they’re being judged on. It’s not the quality or the shoe leather or the extra source or the angle that nobody else has. It’s only the web metrics, on many days. I don’t know, maybe I should retire."