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When Journalism Becomes Sensationalism

When Journalism Becomes Sensationalism

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I often observe British tabloids with a sense of bemusement, but have held the BBC in high esteem. I do however, question the way in which the BBC reported a recent piece titled "Torrent of abuse' hindering ME research." by journalist Tom Feilden. Mr. Feilden interviewed a British professor of psychological medicine, and his retrovirologist co-author on a scientific paper, who complained about the abuse they have received from patients with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

No patients were interviewed (neither those that made threats or any of the hundreds of thousands who have not) nor were any of the hundreds of the researchers who have never been abused in the story. Instead Mr. Feilden interviewed a physician who is a scientific officer with a patient group who pointed out that the abuse and threats were coming from a very tiny minority of patients and suggested that a lack of research funds was the more likely reason fewer researchers were in the field. Balance? Possibly. Funding issues instead of death threats? Boooring.

In the BBC story one virology professor who had collaborated with the professor who is a lightening rod in the field said she would never do research on ME/CFS again. And yet, a virology professor who runs a highly popular and acclaimed research blog in the United States, joined the scientific board of a large advocacy group as a result of his experiences. People's decisions are often as individual as they are. The question may be how tricky is it to make a "trend" out of the decisions of a few?

During the original BBC interview the psychiatry professor read aloud from letters he had received containing a considerable number of swear words. While it is good that the BBC verified the threats to the professor did they verify the veracity of patient complaints against him? I think it is far easier to dismiss patient claims as "conspiracy theories" rather than investigate them. In part because while there is often a grain of truth there in my experience, the documented cognitive abnormalities that are part of this neuroimmune disease (patients call it brainfog) often create misunderstandings.

The headlines went viral worldwide almost immediately. Columnist Rod Liddle of The Sunday Times produced a piece in which he mixed up the facts, left out easily verified facts and generally muddled the situation further. Headline after headline blared forth that researchers were threatened and as a result many researchers were staying out of the field. They certainly grabbed attention, but did they inform? Death threats, no matter how isolated, are a much sexier story than one in which the vast majority of researchers do not receive so much as a birthday card much less death threats from patients too ill to carry them out. The same scientists who do persevere in a field in which biomedical funding is demonstrably scarce.

In the United States if you wish to know the amount of public funding a disease or field receives it will take less than five minutes. The NIH Project RePORTER is an excellent tool to contrast and compare funding levels. Not only can over all funding be compared, but the tools are there to determine the percentage of behavioral studies funded vs. biomedical studies. The question is, would including this kind of data have provided a far different picture than the one provided by the professors in question?

As well, is it really all that difficult to find balancing expert sources in this field or any other health and medicine area? In my experience, not really. Although a study done by University of Missouri journalism professors shows that journalists rarely use PubMed for story ideas PubMed contains thousands of research studies with contact information in them – as well as story ideas.

I in no way condone death threats – not to politicians, nor the rare professor in a controverial field, but I wonder if the real story was buried in a landslide of sensationalism. In the pursuit of the unusual as news did journalism further victimize an often marginalized demographic? Was the professor the victim of victims?

The question may be whether sensationalism of isolated death threats would be more likely to deter researchers than because they or anyone they knew had actually ever received such abuse.

*Ms. Benson has reported in the areas where the politics of health and medicine intersect with the psychological for a number of years. Interviews have included patients, patient advocates, advocate organizations, behavioral and biomedical researchers and staff of the government agencies involved.


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'...but I wonder if the real story was buried in a landslide of sensationalism. In the pursuit of the unusual as news did journalism further victimize an often marginalized demographic?...'

Yes. Well spotted and thanks for shining a light on that.
The real story is huge, and buried behind the concocted white noise of sensationalism.
Tip for journalists: if someone's waving their hands about in your face and yelling their heads off for attention, look behind them. What are they trying to distract you from?

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The number of high-level publications that ran this story over a three week timeframe, many of which included personal interviews with the professor in question, cannot possibly be called 'viral'.

'Co-ordinated' would be a better word (I have 26 years in the PR industry: I know what I'm talking about.)

The distraction at that time was to hide the pre-publication promotion of this:

A set of internationally agreed, independently-produced criteria for the accurate diagnosis or test group selection produced by 26 scientists, academics and medics from 13 countries who have between them treated over 50,000 patients with ME.

Methinks the professor (and others) have rather a lot to lose.

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Kudos to Kate Benson for looking into this subject with a strong background of plain good old horse sense.  From what I have observed, British tabloids really play up to the "big names" (will not name any in the case of ME, most people know who they are), perhaps some of the time to distract, perhaps at other times to give a push to the various charlatans trying to make a buck (or a pound, or a euro) on the backs of ill people.

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Sadly, Rod isn't the only person lacking information. It was a small group, most were not patients, and they incited hatred, so abuse came from an increasing larger group. And yes, some of their targets were ME specialists/researchers. Why? Don't think it had much to do with science. Can't have. Makes no sense. You don't target specialists who are sympathetic to ME. Maybe there's a bit of Putin syndrome. Anyway, that IS why we have no ME researchers left. I retired last year. Wot moi? A ME specialsit? Yes, I was and one can find some of my work on ME onine and via PubMed. No interest in CFS as currrently defined. What they are researching now is a hybrid (ME/CFS or CFS/ME, not ME as described pre 1987). The whole story never came out, partly because it's so distasteful. Manipulation by people supposedly on our own side. That's partly why were are in such a mess. But hey ho, who believes whistleblowers, Cassandras? The horse is in the city. The manipulators did a great job. Take a few years for the whole story to come out. Get the rennies ready. You ain't seen nothing yet. And you probably won't believe it.


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