People remember a case story far better than facts.
If you are reporting a case story that contradicts the majority of science-based findings, be extra thorough in your research, interviews and dissemination to avoid spreading misinformation.
Using a case study in your reporting is one of the most powerful tools for journalism, and it can make a far greater impression than decades of research that contradicts the case study.
Research indicates that when presented with accurate facts plus a personal story that does not support those facts, people will remember the case study and form opinions based on that.
Scientists from Aarhus University, for example, have found that people have a more negative attitude towards social security claimants after seeing a feature about a lazy social security claimant who can’t be bothered to work.
The negative attitude endures even if the feature also contains factual information that states the majority of social security claimants would like to work.
This article is part of the guide 11 tips for journalists: How to avoid blunders when reporting on science. The guide is accessible in three formats:
Online articles regarding each of the 11 tips.
The full guide of 11 tips as a PDF-file.
The 11 tips as a checklist, a one-pager.
A human story shape attitudes
People shape their attitudes based on the personal narrative of a case study regardless of whether it represents the overall picture.
Therefore, if you want to avoid misinformation and misunderstandings, it is a good idea to select case studies for your reporting that are in accord with the research.
Of course, no one should impose a muzzle on information — not even case studies that contradict the research.
But if an interesting and non-representative case history lands on your desk, you as a journalist should be extra thorough, both when doing your research and in your interviews with the source.
Make it known if the case story is an anomaly that is not supported by scientific evidence.
Think critically: Could there be another explanation for the case study’s conclusion?
Consider why you want to report on a case study that contradicts the current science in the field and what the consequences of that reporting will be.
Will your story increase the risk of people’s opting out of vaccines or trying a questionable treatment? If so, should you reconsider writing the article?
The example of the HPV vaccine
In 2014–2015, case-based stories in the media led thousands of young women worldwide to opt out of a vaccine against the HPV virus, which can lead to cervical cancer.
In Denmark, TV 2 aired a documentary about 47 young women who believed they had become ill from the HPV vaccine. Their narratives were backed by a single scientist and a physician.
The story was in stark contrast to the massive, pooled research that unequivocally indicates that the vaccine is safe.
Nevertheless, rates of vaccination in Denmark fell from 79 percent to 46 percent the year after the documentary was released. Scientists fear the decline will cost lives in the long run.
Read more tips by clicking the blinking icons at the left in the graphic below.