Science journalists get punked? “Santa’s a Health Menace”

Newsweek reports today:

Around the world, news outlets have been reporting on a new study in BMJ, the U.K.’s leading medical journal. In the article, titled “Santa Claus: A Public Health Pariah?,” Australian epidemiologist Nathan Grills meticulously lays out the reasons why Santa Claus is a terrible role model—a danger to children everywhere.

. . .

Alerted to the article through a journal press release, news outlets everywhere immediately started reporting on Grills’s article. Headlines proclaimed: “Santa Should Get Off His Sleigh, Jog to Trim Image, Doctor Says”; “Santa Promotes Obesity and Drink-Driving, Claims Health Expert”; and, of course, “Bad Santa.”.

. . .

Here’s the thing. The entire “study” was a joke. It was satire. You’ve heard of Christmas in July? Well, this was April Fool’s Day in December.

The Newsweek piece makes a big deal of the fact that if the journalists did a bit of research, they would have figured out that the article was a joke. The piece is very critical of journalists for reporting seriously on the article and fellow science media watcher, Ben Goldacre, referred to the journalists that wrote up the story as “dicks”.

But I’m not so sure that this moralism is completely justified.

Firstly, journalists are not (usually) expert enough to judge whether an article published in a top journal is good or not and nor ought they be expected to be. The very point of peer-reviewed journals is that the content they publish is endorsed by experts to be of a certain standard. In most cases, a journalist would be overstepping the mark in thinking that they were qualified to decide for themselves if the research was good or not. So, Newsweek’s assertion that the journalists would have figure out that it was a joke if they had looked into some of the research cited by the paper is completely irrelevant. I don’t think it is journalists’ job to do that kind of research.

Secondly, the Newsweek piece makes much ado of the section in which the piece was published: “Christmas Fayre”. I guess that’s a bit of a clue but again, it seems easy to miss if the journalists are making the very reasonable assumption that the journal is trustworthy.

I guess the real problem here is that the journalists probably never looked at the article and just rewrote the press release. Whenever I write a news story about a new study, it’s obvious that most of the other stories around are written straight from the press release and this often leads to poor reporting. But if the journalists did read the article and still didn’t figure out that it was a joke, I’m not so sure they’re worthy of particularly strong criticism. They might be forgiven for thinking that the research was a light-hearted but not completely fictional study.

Whatever the case, it’s pretty funny to read the news stories about the article. They read like stories that would be better placed in The Onion.

Grills, N., & Halyday, B. (2009). Santa Claus: a public health pariah? BMJ, 339 (dec16 1) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b5261