Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The patron saint of nerds, confidential sources and forget the statistics--UPDATED 5.12.05

It was not a swell week for writing about science and scientists
May 10, 2005

Well, if you write 200 stories a year you have to take some shortcuts--The most scandal in journalism, as we reported earlier, had to do with the freelance work of Michelle Delio, a prolific and presumably profitable writer in New York and her work for Technology Review, the magazine associated with M.I.T. One website bills her as the "patron saint of nerds." Tech Review retracted two of her stories when the editors could not confirm her sources. Now Wired News, which has published 700 (!) of her stories under the name Michelle Delio and (presumably, her maiden name--or is it the reverse?) Michelle Finley since 2000, went back to look at their stories. They hired Adam Penenberg, the editor who uncovered the Andrew Glass scandal at New Republic, to do the review. Penenberg and his graduate students reviewed 160 articles, mostly from 2004. Penenberg told Wired News he could not fined sources in 24 of the stories, 40 people. Delio, who blames her trouble on sloppy organization, told Penenberg and Wired News that she stands by her reporting and points out that most of her sources were located by the students. (Isn’t that nice? Most). The sources affected content in varying degrees, Wired News said. In many cases, the quotes from the unconfirmed sources were not crucial to the stories, merely supported contentions contained elsewhere. In four of the stories, however, Penenberg said that they arguably played a more prominent role. The Penenberg report can be found here [PDF]. The web story included a list of the stories, reporting that it is not retracting any of them but is appending a note describing the problem and editing appropriately, which seems a reasonable approach. According to the AP, Wired News publishes stories from Wired Magazine but is an independent operation, separately owned. Penenberg is a Wired News columnist who teaches at NYU. Here's an interview. Ms. Delio, 37, is apparently going to be an unemployed freelance.

There appears to be an epidemic going on. The Sacramento Bee just fired a columnist for faking sources. [I must be doing something wrong. I've been a journalist for more than 35 years and it never occurred to me--with one exception. In the early days of my stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I was asked to do a man-in-the-street interview, which I hold to be the lowest form of journalism, a useless way to fill space and a diversion from real reporting. It's a sign of a bored or lazy editor. A columnist friend with a similar assignment (I don't remember the story that stimulated the idiotic request) suggested we do what he always does in a case like that: head over to the neighboring Press Bar and interview anyone we could find at the bar. Since most of the people at the bar were other Inquirer reporters, we took down the quotes and made up the names. I had a guilty conscience and never did it again, but any editor who asks for man-in-the-street interviews deserves what he gets. Never mind.]

There are lies, damned lies but I don't have time for statistics--But over at the Washington Post, the newspaper has begun (or at least, I never noticed it before) an irregular series on how the media handles or mishandles health stories. In this case, the stories being scrutinized were generated by a report in JAMA last year suggesting that aspirin might lower the chances of a woman getting breast cancer. The research was widely reported, including in the Post and all the television networks. Women who took aspirin regularly had a “20 percent lower risk” compared to nonusers, the stories said. (I'll bet that line came from a press release). The inability of the media--many science writers included (and most of all, their editors)--to deal with statistics in medical research is widely known, and this was no exception, although that the reporters were not totally at fault. The three authors of the Post stories, clinicians at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the stories misled readers about the size and certainty of the benefits. Key questions weren’t asked, such as how big the benefit was and whether the benefits outweighed the side affects of taking aspirin. Most of all: Does taking aspirin really prevent breast cancer or is there something else at work, such as something about women who take the pills versus those who don’t? The Post points out that the JAMA article didn’t answer those questions either, a failure of the JAMA editors. Still, the statistics were mishandled.
The 20 percent reduction in risk certainly sounds impressive. But to really understand what this statistic means, you need to ask, "20 percent lower than what?" In other words, you need to know the chance of breast cancer for people who do not use aspirin. Unfortunately, this information did not appear in any of the media reports. While it might be tempting to fault journalists for sloppy, incomplete reporting, it is hard to blame them when the information was missing from the journal article itself.

In the study, Columbia University researchers asked approximately 3,000 women with and without breast cancer about their use of aspirin in the past. The typical woman in this study was between the ages of 55 and 64. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 20 out of 1,000 women in this age group will develop breast cancer in the next five years. Therefore, the "20 percent lower chance" would translate into a change in risk from 20 per 1,000 women to 16 per 1,000 -- or four fewer breast cancers per 1,000 women over five years.

For people who prefer to look at percentages, this translates as meaning that 2 percent develop breast cancer without aspirin, while 1.6 percent develop it with aspirin, for an absolute risk reduction of 0.4 percent over five years.

Another way to present these results would be to say that a woman's chance of being free from breast cancer over the next five years was 98.4 percent if she used aspirin and 98 percent if she did not. Seeing the actual risks leaves a very different impression than a statement like "aspirin lowers breast cancer risk by 20 percent."

In an ideal world, the reporters would have jumped on the phone and chased the answers to those questions, but this isn’t an ideal world and reporters always face the problem of confronting editors with the news that a story that is getting played all over the world is less than it appears. You don’t get points in the newsroom that way. The Post article is terrific. Bravo.

If only Robert Novak was a science writer (only kidding, only kidding!)--Meanwhile, the battle over protecting confidential sources, is spilling out all over Washington. Five reporters found in contempt for refusing to name their sources in the Wen Ho Lee affair, should not have to reveal those sources, their lawyers claimed in hearings at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. It was up to Lee’s lawyer to work harder at finding them without the reporters’ help. Lee's lawyers blamed “officially authorized” leaks for the series of stories, most famously in the New York Times, that alleged that Lee, a scientist at Los Alamos, was guilty of espionage. It turns out he wasn’t, the case collapsed in great embarrassment for the government and insufficient embarrassment for the media that reported those leaks. Lee is suing. Lawyers for the journalists say Lee’s lawyers had an obligation to exhaust every other avenue to finding those sources before going after the reporters. His lawyers said they ran into a brick wall of obstruction by the FBI and the Justice Department, which were busy covering their collective asses, and the only thing left to do was to go after the reporters. One doesn’t know who to root for in this case.

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