Even science can fall foul of the press

First Person column by Professor Charalambos Kyriacou

Last week, when the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, he was asked about an “imaginative” piece of journalism that was conducted by the newspaper a couple of years ago about some research I had done. The article in the Mail, entitled Cancer danger of that night-time trip to the toilet, cited work by myself and Dr Rachel Ben-Shlomo from the University of Haifa, and stated “Simply turning on a light at night for a few seconds to go to the toilet can cause changes that might lead to cancer, scientists claim”.

Of course, neither myself nor Dr Ben-Shlomo were making such a claim. Our experiments, published in the journal Cancer Genetics and Cytogenetics, stated that mice which had been exposed to a bright, one-hour pulse of light in the middle of their night, showed changes in the expression of genes important for cell-division.  As unregulated cell-divison can lead to cancer, we had perhaps stumbled on a possible connection between the reported elevated rates of some cancers in chronic shift-workers.

On questioning about this story Mr Dacre stated: “I categorically dispute that we adopt an irresponsible stance on medical stories”. This disappointing blanket response ignores the possibility that some people take sensationalist headlines seriously.  Imagine someone had tried to go and pee in the middle of the night and kept the lights off, as he had read the Mail story earlier in the day. He pees on the floor by mistake, slips on the tiles, and breaks his neck on the cistern. Consequently, Mr Dacre should ensure that his journalists write more responsibly.

The Leveson Inquiry seems to be all about the excesses that the press indulge in - whether it be phone tapping Hugh Grant, or more seriously, poor Milly Dowler. Stories that exaggerate and misinterpret scientific research, or for that matter, footballers' or pop stars' alleged misbehaviour, appear to have become a pit that the popular press have buried themselves in. Their misinterpretation of my work is simply a rather trivial example of a serious news reporting malaise that has been with us for decades.

The problem for the scientist is that we cannot pick and choose to whom we talk. We are obliged to widen discussion of our work to the public, whose taxes pay our salaries and our research costs. As a result, the scientist should speak to the media, cross his or her fingers, and hope the journalist gets it right - or at least doesn’t make a complete hash of it because of an underlying sensationalist agenda.

Professor Charalambos Kyriacou is Professor of Behavioural Genetics at the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics.

Originally appeared in the Leicester Mercury on 1 March 2012.

Share this page: