Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V.

Chapter 9 – Investigating Health Issues

Like any academic discipline, biomedicine has its own language. Doctors, nurses and researchers often use words and terms that both you and your readers may not understand or have even heard. This section will explain basic concepts in biomedical research. You can use this to decide if the information you are given is useful or even accurate and how to communicate it to your audience.

Important differences between journalism and science

  • Journalists often use ‘theory’ to mean simply an idea. Scientists use ‘theory’ to mean something that can make testable predictions and can be observed and measured.
  • Journalists require multiple sources – but we mean only three or four. Scientists require far larger numbers, in repeated studies.
  • Journalists use ‘error’ to mean a mistake. But error is an essential part of experimentation and statistical surveying; much scientific reporting is about how big or small the error in an experiment is – and how significant it is for the results. Don’t take comments on ‘error’ in scientific reports to mean that the research was wrong.
  • Likewise, scientific work is far more comfortable with uncertainty than journalism, and less prepared to offer hard yes/no explanations – at least until a very large volume of results are in. Beware of interpreting answers like this:
    Journalist: “Is migration a cause of the spread of this disease?”
    Scientist: “Yes, it is one factor. But other important causes include poor nutrition, … etc.”
    News story headline: “Migrants cause disease says scientist.”
  • Journalists work on short timeframes. Scientists study something over often quite long periods of time and, as we have seen, their views can change as the results of studies and experiments come in over that time.

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