Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Official Style Battle of Journalism and Experimental Research

You may have glanced at the newspaper this morning, or a news app on your smart phone, and found that a new study discovered a shocking innovation that guarantees weight loss or that the food on your plate could potentially be deadly.  Media’s reports of scientific research often distort the reality of research conclusions, stirring vicious and ultimately meaningless debates.  Often, scientific research is jargon heavy and complicated, with many elements of what rhetoric scholar Richard A. Lanham refers to as “the official style” of prose language. In contrast, the field of journalism attempts to remove this official style from the explanation of research.  The problem is that the language used in the varying sources of this information leads to different interpretations of the same arguments.  In experimental research, the official style is a necessary component in establishing credibility by ensuring the accuracy of the description and explanation of the results of the studies.  The official style’s necessity in the field of experimental research has created a gap between society’s questions and the researchers’ ability to answer those questions; a gap that is weakly bridged by journalist media’s reporting on the research findings.  By analyzing articles from various sources involving the current understanding of “organic foods,” the parasitic relationship between experimental research articles and corresponding news columns plainly emerges and unveils a larger societal need for critical thinking. 
            Experimental research plays a large role in directing the patterns and progress of human behavior, but this role is often shadowed by the need for research evidence to be presented credibly and accurately to the professionals within the field.  When the public asks questions such as, “Is organic food better for me than real food?” researchers set out to find answers and have them published in dozens of scholarly and scientific journals.  However, the sources of the findings are so drenched in “the official style” that they become inaccessible to the average consumer.  For example, researchers at Stanford University conducted a meta-analysis of hundreds of organic food studies in 2012, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  The study, titled “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review” comes to no conclusive solution for the public’s undying curiosity.  The official style is used throughout the article to maintain accuracy and convey credibility, but its abundance makes deciphering the researchers’ conclusions essentially impossible.  As such, this sentence from the article riddles, “All estimates of differences in nutrient and contaminant levels in foods were highly heterogeneous except for the estimate for phosphorus; phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant.”  The semicolon, multiple prepositional phrases and technical jargon are highly indicative of the official style.  Using the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease calculator, a tool designed to rate the ease with which one can read a piece, the reading ease level of this segment is measured at an 8.  Further, the “grade-level” assigned to this piece is an 18.5.  In 1993, The National Center for Educational Statistics found that the average U.S. adult reads at the 7th grade level.  Comparing these grade levels shows that the average American could not successfully comprehend and interpret the findings of the study.  Still, it was important that the findings of the study be presented with the official style in order to uphold the self-correcting nature of scientific research. This idea outlines the necessity for research to be replicable by other researchers to create reliable consistency of the results.  Because of this motive, the technical jargon used in the explanation of the conclusions is intended for peers in the field and motivated by the need to be precisely accurate, down to the word choice.  We saw in the above quote from the article that the results could be perceived as apparently contradicting to the average reader: “phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant.”  If one does not know the difference between significance and clinical significance, something that is established through statistical data analysis, the results could be deemed incomprehensible.  While the official style is inherently necessary in maintaining the scientific expectations of publishing research, its resulting inaccessibility to the public leads to a reliance on the more abundant and reachable information provided by news articles.   
            Relying on a media source to direct our behavior may not be the best decision, however it is the purpose of such mediums to make scientific discoveries and their societal implications available to the public.  The public has more physical access to news articles because their various sources eliminate the need for a subscription to a journal, such as is needed for experimental research.  Readers are more likely to understand the language of journalists, which may lead them to trust the information that is more clearly stated.  In response to the published findings by Stanford University on the status of perceptions of organic foods, journalist Michelle Brandt published a column in the Stanford Medicine News Center titled, “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Study Finds.” While the article provided a detailed summary of the research study, it received a reading ease score of 35, which is much higher than the research article and several ‘grade levels’ lower.  The following sentence received a high school-aged grade level, much closer to the reading abilities of the average American: “You figure you’ve just made the healthier decision by choosing the organic product — but new findings from Stanford University cast some doubt on your thinking.”  This inviting narrative, featuring a more direct voice than the passive voice that is characteristic of the official style, elicits more publicity by framing the results of the study in this way as opposed to detailing the more comprehensive results of a “systematic review.”  By removing the official style and attempting to explain and describe the results of research without the technical jargon, journalists often lose the accuracy provided by scientific journals.
            Another article from The Huffington Post provides further evidence that the public holds distorted views of the article as a result of multiple interpretations from multiple different news sources. The article’s author, Jonny Bowden argues, “The media reporting of a new Stanford study purporting to show that organic food has no substantial benefit over conventionally grown food is a wonderful example of how to reduce a complex issue into a moronic sound bite. Google the study and you'll find at least a dozen entries beginning with ‘Organic Food No Better for You.’  The study -- or rather, the media reporting on it -- has generated quite a bit of buzz.”  By reducing the official style language used in the original article to a static claim, not only do the true results of the study become distorted and misreported, they also spread like wildfire due to their increased accessibility.  The first thing a reader sees when viewing any sort of article is the headline.  The gap in representations of the same information is salient in the two sources’ differing headlines.  The Stanford researchers’ article is titled, “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review” while Brandt’s article reworded and summarized her interpretation of the results as “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Study Finds.” The systematic, experimental review, which addresses both sides of the controversy over organic foods, will never be explored by the crowds of readers exposed only to the news article that successfully and clearly answered their original question, though not entirely accurately. 
            The sphere of journalism relies on the gap between the presentation of experimental research results and the public’s understanding of those results to insert less objective opinions and understandings of the data into the published literature, fueling debates such as the one revolving around organic foods.  This is achieved by reducing the official style that is abundant in experimental research articles.  Unfortunately, the issue that arises from this relationship is the public’s acceptance of inaccurate information.  In this case, the official style becomes a hurdle to understanding and even receiving the true results of scientific research.  The question then becomes, should we compromise the accuracy and credibility of experimental research to increase the accessibility of real results?  Is it possible to encourage American readers, consumers and scholars to think critically about the information they are exposed to and create resources to facilitate understanding of difficult literature?  This proposition could lead us down a path of educational and societal improvement not limited to scholarly spheres of human activity.     
-Alayna Stein    

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