One of the most important things for reporters to do when covering a new study is to read the study and the supporting documents. There was a particularly good recent example of what happens when reporters don't do that. First let's look at the links in the media. The Huffington Post, The Gaurdian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail covered a study by GP magazine about how some schools in the UK are opting out of cervical cancer vaccinations for "religious reasons."
The headlines include:
Schools deny girls cervical cancer jabs on religious grounds: Female pupils not being offered potentially life-saving vaccine at schools that oppose premarital sex
Schools opting out of cervical cancer vaccine campaign 'due to religion' Schoolgirls are being denied a potentially life-saving cervical cancer jab at their schools on the grounds of religion.
Schools are denying girls life-saving cervical cancer jab because of religious objections
Cervical Cancer Jab: Pupils In UK Are Being Denied Vaccination By Schools On Religious Grounds
You get the idea. And that was, in fact, what the press release from GP said. One would be forgiven for thinking that there must be a large number of religious schools who are not vaccinating against sexually transmitted diseases for backward religious reasons.
And yet this had about as much grounding in reality as much of the rest of the mainstream media-driven "war on women" data we've seen here in the States.
The study wasn't terribly expansive. It looked at 24 schools. Of those schools, only nine were even religious. And of those nine, guess how many said that their policy against STD vaccinations was for religious reasons? If you guessed "two," you win the coveted prize.
Now for bonus points, guess how many students are at these schools. Both schools, it turns out, have fewer than 10 pupils.
All of the stories more or less reprinted the press release they were given. None looked into the data before running with the angle chosen by the public relations team behind that press release. Not a single story explained that the headlines were about two schools with no more than 20 students.
It's not just religion news stories where we see shoddy coverage of studies, of course, but it's a good reminder to read studies before reporting on them. In the States, it seems like we only see reporters doing that if they don't agree with a study's conclusions. It should be done no matter the bias of the reporter.
Vaccine photo via Shutterstock.