Chinese Whispers

Image Credit: San Diego Shooter (via Flickr)

Misrepresentation of science in the media is a topic frequently under scrutiny; take the MMR scandal for instance. Nevertheless every time a new case comes out it never fails to interest, and surprise me that the information was not more carefully checked before going to print.

An important question was raised at the Royal Institution’s: ‘Do scientists and journalists need different things from science?’ debate a few months ago, about whether specialist science journalists should read the original scientific papers when writing about new research. In my view, this shouldn’t be so much a question as a universal norm, particularly considering the number of cases of misreporting in the past. But one recent example involving a new study about exercise and depression shows that this still doesn’t seem to be the case.

The study, which was carried out by the universities of Bristol and Exeter, was examining the effects of exercise on depression. It involved 361 adults, referred by their GPs, with confirmed depression. As with any randomised clinical trial these individuals were then split into a control group who were given their usual care (e.g. antidepressants and counselling) and a test group who received ‘facilitated physical activity intervention’ in addition to their usual care. The result was that there was no significant difference in levels of depression between the two groups at follow-up one year later.

Now, before I go any further it is important to clarify a couple of things.

First, randomised trials like this one are very difficult to carry out. ‘It’s a real blanket problem with all randomised exercise trials,’ explained Dr Kate Jolly, Professor in Public Health at the University of Birmingham.

‘Anyone can increase their exercise in the same way that they can reduce what they eat – it doesn’t require any medical help or interference. But the moment someone agrees to take part in a trial, the control group always increase their activity, so it becomes much harder to interpret what’s going on.’

Secondly, the term, ‘facilitated physical activity intervention’ refers to exercise that has been prescribed. In the same way as taking medication is ultimately your choice, these individuals were free to do as much or as little exercise as they wanted.

Co-author of the paper and Professor of Psychiatric Epidemiology at Bristol University, Professor Glyn Lewis elaborated further saying, ‘Our study was a carefully designed trial looking to evaluate an intervention that could be used in addition to usual care in the NHS, allowing individuals choice about their physical activity in order to lead to a more long-term change in behaviour.’

Jolly, who has spent time working in psychiatry added, ‘The individuals in this trial were a severely depressed group and if someone’s really severely depressed, it’s almost impossible to try to make them do anything, because people retreat into themselves. If someone’s keen to exercise, and that might mean that they were a high level exerciser in the past, it’s quite possible that exercise will help depression.’

So, from this we are able to conclude that, being encouraged to do exercise in addition to usual care given, does not benefit severely depressed patients. But unfortunately, like a large game of Chinese whispers, the same message was not communicated by the mainstream media.

‘Exercise “fails to lift clinical depression”’ was the headline put out by The Daily Telegraph and the Metro went as far as to say that exercise, ‘had no positive benefits on mental health’. In addition a number of blog entries were posted showing annoyance at the research outcome, or the supposed outcome, that was spread by the media. One of these bloggers was Mark Rice-Oxley, assistant foreign news editor at The Guardian and someone who has always been very open about his personal experience with depression.

‘The vast majority of science in newspapers is mistreated, flattened and oversimplified. Science studies are very complicated and take a few thousand words to properly explain and yet newspaper articles are three hundred words long,’ said Rice-Oxley. ‘Although, it doesn’t help when one of the scientists on the study was reported simplifying his own work saying that, ‘exercise does not appear to be effective in treating depression’. MMR is a classic case in point and this is another one where the newspapers didn’t do a great job in communicating a complicated study, meaning people like me jump on it and come to conclusions.’

These are all fair points. Journalists have to work to extremely tight deadlines, word counts and increasingly large workloads. Therefore it’s understandable that clarifying exactly what a piece of research means may require time that is simply not available.  And it is not just the journalists who are responsible, it is also the responsibility of those leading the research to be willing and able to explain the science as accurately as possible so that the possibility for misinterpretation is minimised.

Overall, I think with controversial stories such as this one, that are likely to generate debate, it is imperative to fact check. Or, to quote James Randerson who wrote a great Guardian blog on this question: ‘there have to be times when a good reporter decides to walk away from the story, even if there is a risk that other less scrupulous media will run it.’

Julia Robinson is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication and is one of the editors of Refractive Index. 



  1. Great article, Julia. It would be interesting to see if the press release was the root of the misunderstanding.

  2. Thank you Siobhan. Interestingly I think with this particular case the press release ( probably was the source of a lot of the confusion, but not because of who wrote it, but who they interviewed – one of the researchers on the study was clearly quoted as saying that ‘exercise does not appear to be effective in treating depression’. So for one of the lead researchers on the study to make this statement, it is unsurprising that that was the message that was latched onto – why would you doubt it? I did try to contact this particular individual when writing this piece but he was, unfortunately, unavailable – would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on it!

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