Making Sense of “Sound-Bite” Science Reporting

I teach nutrition at a local community college and one of my favorite lecture topics is “How to Evaluate News Reports About Food and Nutrition.” After an admittedly dry lecture on scientific method and the various types of scientific studies used in nutrition research, the students usually welcome a chance to talk about some nutrition topic they’ve heard about on TV, Instagram or another communication channel. As you may have noticed, there is no lack of nutrition studies to discuss—the media covers the topic nearly daily. Unfortunately, most times the public is left to fend for themselves when it comes to understanding these reports. (I miss the days when science reporters were employed at every news outlet.)


My Beef with “Sound-Bite” Science Reporting

My basic definition of “sound-bite” science, which I’ve been writing about for 20 years now, is science that’s been simplified and “repackaged” for communication via the media to the general public. Granted, consumers are never going to line up to read scientific studies—they are tedious reading and, frankly, deliver more information than most people need or want to know. Having worked in both broadcast and print media for most of my career, I know that there isn’t time or space to give all kinds of detail about studies. I truly get all that. But, in most cases, there IS time to provide a little useful context in the coverage of these studies, and there’s also time to correctly frame results so that the public is not misled. There absolutely is time for both of these things, they just aren’t typically done—or at least not done well. And those issues are central to my “beef” with this kind of reporting.

Another prevalent issue that we see with the media’s nutrition coverage is the sensationalizing of the research. Science is not filled with “Eureka” moments. In fact, I’d say most studies don’t provide any “Eureka!” moments. Certainly not every study has results that the public needs to act on immediately. Reporting on these studies as if our very lives depended on us making said dietary changes tomorrow is, at the very least, irresponsible.

What to Know About “Sound-Bite” Reports

Here are few tips for making sense of what you’re hearing or reading in the media. If you’re reading it, good for you—you’re probably ahead of the game since it’s likely you may get a more complete view of the science in print…though that’s not guaranteed.

Know that association/correlation doesn’t prove causation.

Much nutrition research is observational, which is when the researchers examine an exposure (such as a food or food ingredient for example) and an outcome (such as a disease or even death) in a group of people. The people are free-living and the group is not randomized, and other factors that may impact the relationship between the people and the food or ingredient are not controlled-for. Hence, the limit of this type of study is that it can only say if there is a correlation between the disease and the food, and how strong the correlation may be. It does not prove that the food caused the disease. (Here’s a nice little blog post about causation vs correlation with a few good examples.)

Studies that show correlations are not useless, and often they are used to inform additional research, but only a randomized, controlled trial can show true cause and effect. This is where many “sound-bite” reports get it wrong. Very often observational studies—which can only show an association—are reported using language that should be reserved for randomized, controlled trials. I’m talking about phrases such as “X food is linked to Y disease”, or  “those who eat more X lower their risk of Y disease,” or “X food helps prevent Y disease.” The media may stop short of saying “X food causes Y disease,” but the implication is there—and to the public, the connecting of X and Y combined with statistics and phrases like “lower/increased the risk,” or “is linked to” sounds like causation.

Know that personal anecdotes and celebrities’ stories are not equal to scientific studies.

Who hasn’t seen a celebrity (or celebrity-like TV or internet doctor) talk about their experience with an “amazing” new food/drink/supplement or special weight loss plan? And what about all those internet stories (including those in the Comments section on blog posts) about people who have eliminated some food or ingredient from their diet and viola, they are cured of whatever ailed them? These kinds of things are rampant in social media, YouTube and television and some of them are pretty convincing, even including statistics (and who understands those, right? Actually, the important stats are not that hard to understand, so if you’re interested, seek out what they mean and you’ll be better informed overall when reading about scientific findings. Also, if you want to learn how to read a scientific study, this is a good tutorial.)

The problem is, none of these stories are actual scientific studies—and they don’t carry the same amount of weight that a real study does. If you dig around, you often find some “references,” for things you’re seeing, but closer inspection reveals that the anecdote has stretched the study’s findings, or that the study doesn’t even relate to the anecdote. Bottom line: don’t be swayed by stardom. Good scientific evidence doesn’t need a celebrity to sell it.

Know that you don’t need to modify your diet based on last night’s news report.

Although it seems like scientific discoveries move at a rapid pace these days because of technology and the sharing of knowledge worldwide, the scientific process actually moves along in slow steps. Sometimes those are missteps, even. Realize that it usually takes many studies and many steps to get to a useful conclusion about something scientific. This is why the context of results should always be considered. Unfortunately, context is not frequently reported since it tends to “soften” the message or clutter the report, thereby making it less “sexy.” It’s the nature of science to evolve, which means there is rarely a “last word.” We constantly learn more, which is good. That makes science a little tough to shape your life around, I realize.

Consider (or research on your own if it’s a topic that you think relates to you or your health situation—because not everything will apply to you) these questions: How does that last report fit into the body of evidence on that topic? What do other experts have to say about that newest finding? Most researchers themselves caution that more research is needed before real conclusions can be made about what people should do about their health in light of a new study. Instead of bending in the wind with every health report your hear, rely on general scientific consensus to guide your diet and health behaviors.