Understanding, Evaluating, and Communicating Nutrition, Part II: Accurate Research Reporting

(Second in a series of three articles.)

The relationship between nutrition and health is fully entrenched in the mainstream media, and everyone from career scientists to our next-door neighbor seems to be an expert on the topic. Becoming skilled in research evaluation, being aware of media perspectives, and understanding different forms of bias are extremely important in this rapidly evolving field.

We recently interviewed Dr. Andrew Brown of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Office of Energetics and Nutrition Obesity Research Center, whose voice has risen to the foreground in discussing research evaluation and scientific integrity. In the second of our three-part series, Dr. Brown discusses media reporting of nutrition research and issues while maintaining accuracy.

FOOD INSIGHT: Let’s talk about how research gets reported. How much of the burden of accurate nutrition reporting falls on the media and how much falls on the researchers themselves?

ANDREW BROWN: The burden of accurate nutrition reporting falls on all of us: scientists, media, media relations, clinicians, educators, politicians, and information consumers. If the initial scientific report is communicated poorly, there is little hope that the information will be described well thereafter, so there is additional pressure on the originator of the information to communicate clearly, precisely, and accurately.

However, if we collectively stop creating a market for nonsensical, over-hyped science, then the supply will likely decrease (assuming basic economics principles apply to scientific communication, which is a huge assumption).

Politicians want information to support their proposed policy; consumers want information that will reinforce their world views; readers want entertaining stories; media want clicks and subscriptions; and scientists want tenure, promotion, grants, and glory. None of those things necessarily overlaps with the principal goal of science: systematic pursuit of objective truths.

FOOD INSIGHT: In your opinion, what steps should be taken so that reporters can generate content that is both interesting and accurate?

ANDREW BROWN: There are some great resources out there, including IFIC’s [Guide for Evaluating Evidence], HealthNewsReview.org’s guides to reporting news, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and others that give advice on how to best communicate scientific information to the public. Accurate information is the most interesting to me, but I understand I may be atypical in my interests, so working with or taking cues from these groups that focus on science communication is likely a good first step.

(Read the "Harvard-IFIC Guidelines," a set of guiding principles for evaluating and communicating emerging nutrition science.)

FOOD INSIGHT: IFIC’s 2015 Food and Health Survey results indicate that nearly a quarter of all survey respondents trust health, food, and nutrition bloggers for accurate information on both dietary advice and food safety. This trend is more prevalent in younger respondents. Given the abundance of both good and bad online sources for nutrition information, what are your thoughts on this observation?

ANDREW BROWN: It’s disappointing, but the line between science journalism and blogging is increasingly blurry. Even journals, professional societies, and health institutions have blogs now, so perhaps it is less about trusting or not trusting blogs and more about finding a reliable source. Blogs can include a range of quality, much like print media include both reputable sources and tabloids.

FOOD INSIGHT: Is it more difficult to get null findings published?

ANDREW BROWN: Some research indicates publication bias may have gone up; others not. Because of the vast number of journals available, getting any study published at least somewhere is not a problem. Getting a well-conducted study with null findings published in a high-tier journal can sometimes still be challenging, but if it is a well-conducted study, then it will find a good home regardless of outcomes.

I like to tell the story of my thesis study that was highly controlled, but with absolutely no statistically significant findings. It took a couple of attempts to get it published, which was certainly time-consuming and frustrating. When I did I get it published, I received a graduate student award from the journal for that year.

Even null findings can be rewarded if conducted and communicated well, but the scientist has to get over the seeming disappointment of feeling like they “didn’t find anything.” Reliable null data still represent an important snapshot of reality.

Increasing transparency and integrity of scientific research is a critical aim for several organizations, including the Center for Open Science, the Nutrition Science Initiative, and philanthropy efforts of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.