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Man bites dog: researcher gets chance to counter inaccurate reporting of article

A rather amazing thing happened this week in the often somewhat sorry state of reporting of medical research: a newspaper allowed an author of a scientific paper the chance to correct what he felt were misperceptions in the reporting of his work. The research paper by Simon Baron Cohen and colleagues (Auyeung, B. et al. Br. J. Psychol 100, 1– 22 (2009) – not freely available I am afraid so I can’t link to it, though the abstract is available on PubMed) found a correlation between levels of foetal testosterone (FT) and the number of autistic traits a child shows at the age of eight. However, subsequent reporting in a number of British newspapers implied that a prenatal test had been found for autism, and raised the ever-controversial (and of course very newsworthy idea) that termination of such pregnancies might be possible and with headlines such as If we screen out autism we run the risk of losing genius, too, stirred the concerns of parents even further.

Although the article in the Guardian was, as Baron Cohen noted “mostly correct”, its headline “New research brings autism screening closer to reality” was not and its strapline “Call for ethics debate as tests in the womb could allow termination of pregnancies” likely to cause unnecessary alarm. So on the 20th Jan Simon Baron-Cohen was allowed to give his side of the story in both the print and online versions of the Guardian, in an article entitled Our research was not about prenatal screening for autism .

This is a refreshing turn of events and the best type of responsible journalism. Perhaps it will encourage other authors to ask for the right of reply in newspapers – or even better, will lead to newspapers getting the story (and especially the headlines, which are often not in the control of the journalists) right in the first place. As an aside, it’s also possible that if anyone concerned by the story had been able to read it directly they might have been reassured – another argument for open access to medical research.

  1. You’re right, it’s good to see researchers given the chance to correct mis-reporting of their work. (Though, as I wrote here, at least some of what Baron Cohen sought to correct had to do with interpreting future implications of his work, rather than a misrepresenting what he actually did.)

    I also think it that researchers should seek to correct journalists not just when they journalist’s portrayal of their work plays to public fears, but also when journalists exaggerate the significance of the researcher’s work.
    I blogged about that here:
    Controversial Research; Terrible Nomenclature

    Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.

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