Sex, words and Rock&Roll? Not at all, just bad journalism

Escrito por pabloripolles 29-10-2014 en science. Comentarios (0)

My name is Pablo Ripollés and I am a PhD student at the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Unit in the University of Barcelona and the IDIBELL. On the 24th of October, Catalan newspaper "La Vanguardia" published a story about one of our studies (I am the first author). Our work, published on the 23rd of October in Current Biology, was titled "The role of reward in word-learning and its implications for language acquisition". I got a hell of a surprise when I realized that the headline of the article published by "La Vanguardia" was "Learning new words has the same effect as sex".


Why did "La Vanguardia" publish such a sensationalist and out of reality headline? Was it necessary to twist reality like that? Of course, none of the co-authors of the study were contacted by any of  the reporters of "La Vanguardia" before their news article was published.  The truth is that, the reporters (and I say reporters because I still don't know who actually wrote the piece), copied the main body of the news article from the press release of the University of Barcelona. I have nothing against copying the body of a press release (that is what a press release is for, right?), but if someone wants to copy it, I expect them to do it properly. The headline of the press release was "The pleasure of learning new words". See the difference? But not only did they change the original headline for one that manipulates, trivializes and decontextualizes the main conclusions of our study: they also decided to make up part of our results. In the main body of the news article of "La Vaguardia" they also wrote "the people who feel with more intensity, learn faster. That is one of the other conclusions of the study". No, not at all. Absolutely wrong. What we also showed was that people with a better structural integrity of the white matter tracks reaching the ventral striatum were able to learn more words during the task. The degree of intensity of their feelings (whatever they were), had nothing to do.

The moment I read the article of "La Vanguardia" I contacted them. I told them how unhappy (not to say pissed off) I was with their headline and with them making up part of our results. They took out the part which they invented, but kept the sex thing on the headline:"Learning new words activates the same cerebral areas as sex". After this, I asked them to withdraw the article because it was still sensationalist and gave the wrong impression about our results. Never got an answer from them. Not even when I sent them this very same text you are reading right now. Nevertheless, my complaints did not arrive in time: several foreign media were already publishing that Spanish and German scientists had discovered that learning new words had the same effect as sex. I contacted several of those media and told them that our results had nothing to do with that. One of them actually changed the headline (The Local, thank you so much!), but it was already too late: the Daily Mail and Russia Today had the piece already on-line. It had gone viral and I was like a modern nerd Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Do you know that feeling? The one in which you think that nothing can go worse, but then the universe surprises you? Well, yes indeed: on Monday the 27th several Spanish media were copying the distorted news article from foreign newspapers (see TelecincoCuatro or La Gaceta, which copied the whole story from Russia Today). Internet and its circle of life. Hooray for all the media which copied the copy of the fake news article and did not contrast their sources. Today (27th of October) anyone can find in both Spanish and foreign media an article reporting results which did not come from scientific research, but from journalistic delirium. Game over.

So in case you still wonder where does my anger come from, these are my two cents. In the middle of the greatest budget cuts of the history of Spain we struggled to pull out this study, along with our colleagues from the Otto-von-Guericke University of Magdeburg. After more than two years, I see the work of a whole lot of people shredded to pieces out of bad journalism. I understand we live in a fast and globalized world in which salient and sexy headlines are needed. Journalists need to catch the eye of the reader that is racing through the news. But, was it necessary to lie? Is it no longer important to check your sources? If any reporter had any doubt about our study, they could have contacted us before publishing. But they all did the easy thing: create or copy a sensationalist headline and wait for the visitor counter to go mad. And meanwhile, our reputation as scientists went straight to the toilet. And what is worse, what is the message that the citizen gets? Easy: some nerds are wasting money on doing some pseudoscientific research. It is not me talking here; those were the complaints raised by some of my fellow tax payers in several on-line posts. 

This is not a criticism to all journalists, not at all. As in all things in life, there are many very professional journalists who do a proper job. I think there is a very difficult balance between what a researcher reports and what a journalist wants to convey to a broader audience and we all should be aware of this problem. I just hope this post helps to spread this debate. However, I want to end by saying that I will not tolerate the wrong doing of some journalists to destroy our work and to send a message implying that basic science is just silly. Because the message that people should get is totally different: basic science is crucial for our society. With this article I am trying to fulfill my responsibility as a researcher. The question is, do the reporters that led to this situation know which is their responsibility as journalists?

PS: I know, my English is far from being perfect.