How the Mass Media Report Social Statistics: A Case Study Concerning Research on End-of-Life Decisions
Social science & medicine (1982) 2010 Sep; 71(5): 861-8
The issue of whether it is right to be concerned about the accuracy with which mass media report social scientific research is explored through a detailed case study of media reporting of two surveys of UK doctors' end-of-life decision-making. Data include press releases, emails and field notes taken during periods of media interest supplemented by a collection of print and broadcast media reports. The case study contributes to existing knowledge about the ways in which mass media establish, exaggerate and otherwise distort the meaning of statistical findings. Journalists ignored findings that did not fit into existing media interest in the 'assisted dying' story and were subject to pressure from interest groups concerned to promote their own interpretations and viewpoints. Rogue statistics mutated as they were set loose from their original research report context and were 'laundered' as they passed from one media report to another. Yet media accounts of the research, fuelling an already heated public debate about ethical issues in end-of-life care, arguably acted as a conduit for introducing new considerations into this debate, such as the role played by sedation at the end of life, the extent to which euthanasia is practiced outside the law, and the extent of medical opposition to the legalisation of assisted dying. The expectation that accuracy and comprehensiveness should be the sole criteria for judging journalists' reports is, finally, considered to be unrealistic and it is argued that social scientists need to understand and adapted to the conditions under which mass media reporting operates if they are to succeed in introducing the findings of social research into public debates.
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