PUNder the Many Differences

Scientist on Assignment

Department of Physics Blogs
Published: September

A few days ago my first news article was published. Although certainly tied to science it is most certainly a news story and not a science story.

Ahead of a pair of papers being published in scientific journals, the UK authors called a press conference to vocalize their criticism of the WHO’s recommendations for countries to enact stronger regulations on e-cigarettes. Technically, the authors were responding to the academic paper that was commissioned by the WHO to give background but the recommendations of the background paper and the official WHO report are almost identical and it was clear to all that the UK critiques were debating the WHO recommendations.

This press conference was covered by all the major London papers and many science-oriented publications. So it’s interesting to see what ways the articles are consistent and in which they differed.

You can gauge the coverage versus the tone yourself by reading the original press release.

I read and compared other people’s coverage. Maybe I did this because I wanted to see if I had completely misunderstood the tone of the experts or maybe to see if other papers would put an editorial slant on this socially important issue or if anyone had found an insightful angle that I had completely missed.

Most people (including the BBC, Reuters, Nature News and Time) started with the strong phrase that these experts felt that the WHO made “important errors, misinterpretations and misrepresentation of evidence” or that the WHO was “alarmist.” This is how we started as well.

The other common way to start was to lead with the number of lives that the experts estimated could be saved by ecigarettes. This is the tact that the Guardian took. While I admit that this is perhaps the most important number, it comes from a rough approximation and will never be directly verifiable. For us this rate occurred much deeper into the article. Even rougher than the rate itself, some publications translated the rate of lives saved per year per million smokers who switch from conventional tobacco to ecigarettes into a very large number (54000) of lives that could be saved per year if every single smoker in the UK switched. While the number is no more or less correct than the rate, it is more misleading in my opinion because it is hard to believe that 100% of UK smokers will switch.

One place where my FT article was a bit more number heavy than most was with clauses that tip their hat at the economics of ecigarettes. We mention the growth of the ecigarette market, which very few papers did. This is not new information for this article but seemed like appropriate background information for my stereotype of an FT reader.

Also a lot of the same quotes showed up. I was happy that no one else that I saw used the same ones that I used. Notable, McNeill was certainly on point and there are a number of similar quotes.

My favourite quote that I did not get was one from the BBC: “You have to be a bit crazy to carry on smoking conventional cigarettes when there are e-cigarettes available,” said Robert West “The vapour contains nothing like the concentrations of carcinogens and toxins as cigarette smoke.”

The BBC was also quote heavy like we were at the FT, which is probably the right approach (obviously I’d think so) because the news story is only that these scientists are speaking up.

There were places where the coverage differed but it wasn’t extremely substantial.

Some articles were able to make the distinction that there were two separate articles that were criticising the WHO recommendations and that the separation of the WHO-commisioned paper and the WHO recommendations better than I was able to. The Guardian did this very well and so did Science 2.0.

My excuse is that they had more space to do so. A second place where more space would have been nice would have been to go through the highlights of their critique. In their press release the experts do a very nice job stressing 4 of the 9 points where they really disagree with the WHO recommendations. Again Science 2.0 did a good job of this, as did Reuters.

Thankfully (or not) we weren’t the only ones to go with a pun for this debate which could have a long standing impact on society and potentially save 10s of thousands of lives. Time also ran a pun headline: “Debate Over E-Cigarettes Lights Up.” The headline does not help me be proud of my first news piece; however, I do see why grabbing peoples interest is important and I don’t actually think that the pun misrepresents the story so it’s fine.

One place where we at the FT were a little different was that we stressed that the critics felt that they would be able to work with the WHO moving forward. The BBC went with the standard journalism approach of getting balance by speaking to scientists who disagreed with the critiques. While I definitely understand that there are two sides to every story, it seems to me that the WHO’s recommendations already act as the other side and so by ending with critiques of the critiques, you end up biasing your report.

Nature News went even further and stressed just how polarized things might become. Though we are certainly more optimistic in the piece, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Nature News’ pessimism is more appropriate.

While we differed in tone at the end of the articles, Time’s piece went very strongly towards antagonistic of the critiques by commenting on the fact that one author of the paper lists his “competing interests.” It’s not actually a bad point but ending with it leaves the reader (or at least me) with a bad taste of  “suspicion of foul play” in their mouth, which doesn’t seem to be appropriate.

For a laugh (or not), notice that the Huffington Post went in an entirely different direction by running the headline “E-Cigarettes Could Act As Gateway Drug To Cocaine And Cannabis, Warn Researchers” covering some other group of researchers on the same day.

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