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Communicator of the Week: Dr John Bohannon

3rd June 2015


In his excellent book on journalism - My Trade - Andrew Marr describes the rise of what we would now call tabloid journalism. He recounts how scandal and sordid stories of the rich and famous began leading the news supported by a gruesome murder or two. Newspaper sales soared. This was Victorian Britain, not the 20th century, and long before Rupert Murdoch changed journalism in this country.

More recently we've seen a shift driven by a desire for speed and a breaking news culture coupled with 'Google journalism' - writing in a search engine optimised way. Talk to most senior journalists and they admit standards are dropping in the pursuit for new revenue streams to replace plummeting circulations.

This then is the context of what today constitutes 'news'. News should always be something new - it is what form that newness takes that brings us to this week's award winner.

Almost daily we are bombarded with 'new' medical advances or scientific discoveries that inform a new 'this changes everything' diet. Our award winner saw this and decided to act. John Bohannon, a science journalist and molecular biologist at Harvard University developed a fraudulent study based on a tiny clinical trial which concluded with a false positive: eating chocolate helps you lose weight.

He used a statistical technique to 'hack' the data and submitted his findings to academic journals who accepted the study without peer review. Dr Bohannon was confident the study would be rumbled but instead his findings published by the fictional "Institute of Diet and Health" became a worldwide story covered by some of the world's biggest media titles including Mail Online and Huffington Post.

In their desire to be first, or at least not last, journalists failed to follow up with their own sources and instead just wrote up the press release or, worse, copied another journalists' work. This is the reality of the media world we experience today - one with standards often lower than the tabloid explosion of the late 20th century and far lower than the pioneering days of the News of the World in Victorian Britain.

Dr Bohannon was right to expose this and is why he is my Communicator of the Week.

Communicator of the Week is written by Edward Staite.
 



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