Back in 2011, as a member of the External Affairs committee myself and a couple of others from PSI worked closely with the Science Media Centre (SMC), in collaboration with the RSS, to create a network of volunteers to provide statistical critiques to the lay media on health research. Following the launch of ‘Before the Headlines’, I spent a busy couple of years promoting the initiative and calling for volunteers with an article in SPIN, a presentation at the RSS conference in 2012, a presentation at the 2012 PSI AGM and a parallel session at the PSI conference in 2013. However, we’ve been pretty quiet about it since then, so what happened?
The great news is that the initiative is still thriving and continues to provide a great service to journalists. Briefly, for those of you who had not previously heard of Before the Headlines, or (shame on you!) have forgotten, I’ll outline the process. The SMC identifies a piece of research that is likely to be picked up by mainstream media, and reaches out to the network for one member to provide an objective review of both the embargoed paper and press release. This review is then distributed to health and science journalists at the major UK media outlets prior to the writing of their articles. The review, which is an impartial explanation of the key points of the statistics, is attributed to the network and not to an individual volunteer.
Since the launch in 2011, the Before the Headlines volunteers have provided more than 80 reviews, including recent reviews on ‘pollution and birth weight’, ‘brain training for dementia’ and ‘sedentary behaviour and mortality’. The SMC distributes the reviews alongside reactions from experts in the field to help to position the research in a wider context. We continue to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from journalists, there have been stories that media outlets decided not run at all or were given a lower priority following our review. Recently, The Times, the Sun and CNN all referred to the group directly in their articles covering research indicating a possible link between Proton Pump Inhibitors and an increased risk of early death. CNN article stated that ‘This type of study, which retroactively looked at the medical records of older veterans, cannot prove that proton-pump inhibitors increase the risk of death, according to the Science Media Centre, a United Kingdom non-profit that provides commentary on scientific studies. The center’s volunteer statisticians noted that up to 10% of people taking proton-pump inhibitors died within one year, which suggests that the death may be linked to their other conditions’.
All the reviews are publicly available on the homepage for the Science Media Centre website via the ‘before the headlines’ tile (www.sciencemediacentre.org
). For more information contact myself or Dave Gelb.
Contracts and Partnerships Director, PSI