The more complex the issue, the shorter the reporting – or: when brevity means bias

In today’s fast-moving digital society marked by frequent and rapid changes and a chronic overload of incoming information, the attention span to pick up, digest and appropriately understand headlines and news has fallen to a matter of split seconds – or a minute or two, at best. (So when you’re reading these lines you can already consider yourself an exceptionally thorough and attentive reader …)

Readers today thus face an elevated structural risk of being exposed to, or fall victim to, misinformation from overly fast or unduly abridged reporting of ‘facts’, particularly when it’s about complex issues such as the latest scientific findings on a particular subject.

Independent from the complexity of an issue, headlines and news tend to flow ever more rapidly and broadly into ever more numerous media channels. At the same time, there is less and less money – and time – left for journalists to carry out in-depth investigations themselves.

In such an environment, it can become pretty difficult to distinguish between real and alternative facts or between accurate and unduly shortened news reporting (the latter being close to the ominous phenomenon of ‘fake news’).

Over the past months, we have seen this pattern happen time and again. Only ten days ago, initial reporting about the latest study on alcohol consumption published in The Lancet grabbed the headlines. Yet the initial reporting could hardly be termed balanced or sufficiently comprehensive – a fact nicely illustrated by the impressive number of profound critiques and comments published in the immediate aftermath – albeit without grabbing the headlines.

Given the structural and commercial realities we live in, it’s not the first time such an episode of ‘biased brevity’ happens. And it certainly won’t be the last. However, it’s an unhelpful and unwelcome trend that is not without its perils: it reduces the quality of the public debate and, at worst, erodes the mutual trust and understanding between consumers, economic operators, researchers, citizens and policy makers. However, such mutual trust is of utter importance, as policy measures, particularly in the area of public health, should be built on the broadest and most adequate understanding of the latest scientific research and evidence available. 

At spiritsEUROPE, we are concerned about the above trend. In autumn, we will spell out our concerns in more detail as part of a dedicated document. In it, we argue that the proper communication of scientific findings is a fundamental principle that all stakeholders should meticulously adhere to – maybe, above all, the media departments of certain scientific journals.