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How the media flubbed Kitty Hawk

The Wright Brothers cover

Steve Buttry quotes from historian David McCullough’s new book The Wright Brothers to show how easy it can be for journalists to miss history even when it is unfolding right in front of them: "After the Dec. 17, 1903, maiden flight of the Wright Flyer, the news coverage was, at least looking back more than a century later, embarrassing. Newspapers either whiffed on the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s historic achievement entirely or got major facts wrong."

Dan Rather on science and the media

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The longtime CBS newsman discusses anti-science views in politics, and places some of the blame on journalists seeking balance: "In a TV news story over science, what if the charlatan in the video is more charismatic and camera-friendly than the person backed by the preponderance of science? That was the case in the infamous '60 Minutes' piece about a link between vaccines and autism, which featured a now thoroughly discredited British doctor with a smooth accent."

In defense of a medical news release

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A case examined by shows that even when a news release is hedged, the ensuing news stories can still be hyped. Kevin Lomangino compares a release and resulting article on resveratrol and Alzheimer’s: "Our reviewers praised the Georgetown University Medical Center release issued for the phase 2 safety study, calling it 'appropriately tempered and very informative' … but a Time magazine story about the study received low marks from our review team."

A fact-check of those e-cigarette stories

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Christie Aschwanden dissects the study behind last week's headlines about electronic cigarettes and the odds that their users will move on to regular cigarettes. What she finds is a sample size problem; 37.5% of e-cigarette users took up traditional smoking, but the raw count was just six of 16: "The media does the public no favors when it presents a single study (especially a small one like this) as gospel, rather than just a small addition to the amassing evidence."

The real reason women freeze in offices

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It's not their lower metabolic rates, Bethany Brookshire writes in a takedown of one of the most recent viral science stories. After consulting with experts in building design, Brookshire writes that metabolism is probably not a significant factor: "So who is keeping you so cold? Whoever sets the thermostat, not whoever designed the building … Some buildings overcool air to reduce humidity. Men stuffed into heavy suits may play a role, but psychology might as well."

In praise of a good press release

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Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview is never bashful in criticizing medical news coverage and press releases, so it's fitting that Schwitzer offers high praise for a BMJ release that included appropriate caveats about a study's conclusions: "Did that clarity — that emphasis on the fact that association (does not equal) causation — make a difference in subsequent news stories based on the study or on the news release? It appears that may be the case in this instance."

A sea-level story's sketchy origins

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It's not unusual for press coverage to get out in front of the peer-review process, and Scott K. Johnson explains how it happened with stories about climate scientist James Hansen's recent sea-level rise forecast: "The manuscript is certainly interesting, covers a lot of ground, and proposes some interesting leads to follow up on. But it’s not a game-changer as some news coverage seemed to imply. And as the formal peer-review plays out, it may change in important ways."

Dissonant coverage of music research

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Harvard psychologist Samuel A. Mehr takes major news media outlets to task for their coverage of a study on the cognitive benefits of music for children. He then reviews other news coverage of music cognition research and finds two types of common errors: "Whose fault is all this? Are journalists sensationalizing our findings to garner page-views and sell papers, or are scientists exaggerating the importance of their own work? I speculate that the answer is 'both.'"

Gauging harm from a health news scare

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Did a documentary on cholesterol-lowering statins scare people away from their medicine? Cathleen O'Grady writes that Australian researchers say it probably did: "It’s impossible to say whether it definitely was the documentary that caused the change without finding each individual and asking them what made them stop filling their prescriptions … However, the evidence does seem to point in the direction of the media scare for approximately half of those [60,000] cases."

For radiation, a question of dose

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In a two-part essay on the risks of ionizing radiation, David Ropeik begs reporters to avoid alarmism: "Ionizing radiation is a veritable poster child for how journalism dramatizes the scariest aspects of risk stories, and plays down or completely leaves out information that would make the risk seem less frightening, information the news consumer needs in order to make an informed judgment about just how big or small the risk actually is."