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BMJ punks journalists for a Christmas laugh

By Michael Slezak - posted Tuesday, 5 January 2010


Before Christmas, journalists the world over were punked by a spoof article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) about Santa Claus being a bad influence. The event has put journalists on the defensive and inspired vitriolic criticism from media critics. But this time, I don't think the journalists are particularly worthy of blame.

In the most recent edition of BMJ, Nathan Grills from Monash University published a "study" that blamed belief in Santa Claus for childhood obesity. The paper also cited Santa's drink-driving, speeding, roof hopping and lack of seat-belt wearing as contributing factors to poor health outcomes in children and adults. The paper concludes that, "given Santa's universal appeal, and reasoning from a public health perspective, Santa needs to affect health by only 0.1 per cent to damage millions of lives".

Journalists the world-over reported on the findings under headlines such as "Santa more naughty than nice, says expert", and "Boozy, fat Santa 'a bad example'".

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The only problem is that there was no such study. The whole thing was a joke. The journal was just having a bit of Christmas holiday fun.

The punked journalists and editors around the world went into defensive mode, publishing stories labelling Grills a "grinch". Meanwhile, media critics used the spoof as evidence that journalists aren't doing their job. Ben Goldacre, author of The Guardian's excellent "Bad Science" column, called the punked journalists "d-cks".

I spend a lot of my time pointing out how journalists screw up science stories so it's refreshing for me to find myself defending them on this matter: In this case, I don't think the journalists are particularly to blame for misinforming the public and the affair raises questions about the role of scientific journals and their PR offices.

In a Newsweek blog, Ashley Merryman argued that the journalists should have figured out that the article was a joke because “two internet clicks reveal that those … articles [cited by the report]” didn’t contain any relevant data.

Quite to the contrary, journalists should not be expected to research the material presented in peer-reviewed journals. Journalists ought to trust the journals - doing otherwise is, in general, to overstep their role. The information presented in peer-reviewed journals makes up the body of scientific knowledge and journalists are within their rights to assume that those journals are a trustworthy (but fallible) source of information.

More to the point, perhaps, is simply the fact that the article is very funny, when read as a joke. But lacking a sense of humour, although undesirable, is not a hanging offense for journalists.

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As I see it, either the journalists that wrote the stories are guilty of not having a sense of humour, or of the most common failure among science news writers: rewriting the press release without reading the paper.

If the latter, then the problem highlighted is boring to rehearse and hardly worth mentioning. Science journalism is plagued by the rewriting of press releases and we’ve known this for ages. (Imagine your lack of surprise at a headline reading, “Journalist rewrites press release!”)

The more interesting question is, given that we know journalists will often rewrite a press release without reading the paper, should the BMJ have published a spoof paper and sent out a press release that gave no clear indication that the paper was not serious?

If anyone is to blame for misleading the public in this case, it must be the BMJ’s press office. They knew that their press release would be summarised for publication all over the world and must have expected the uncritical reporting that proceeded from it.

Christmas cheer is all well and good, but it’s not clear that journals should mislead journalists and the public in its name.

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About the Author

Michael Slezak is a freelance science writer and blogger and teaches philosophy at The University of Sydney. His writing has appeared in publications including Crikey, The Sydney Morning Herald, ABC Science Online, The Guardian and New Matilda.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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