Journalism in Science: A Rhetorical Analysis

Whether intended or not, the act of reporting provides a point of view which can potentially influence the message received by the audience; scientific journalism is especially susceptible due to the complex nature of the subject matter. What message the audience receives from the reporting of scientific finds can be influenced by factors like word usage, structure, use of narrative, and speaking to larger cultural contexts to paint a message for the reader.

 

Researchers at the University of Ottawa published a paper in late 2016 called ‘Age and sex differences in immune response following LPS treatment in mice.’ The study explored differences in immune responses exhibited in mice as a function of age and sex after exposing the mice to LPS, an endotoxin that binds to immune cells and triggers the aforementioned immune response. Its findings were that male mice display more sickness behavior and greater fluctuations in body temperature following LPS treatment than female mice, adult male mice display more sickness behavior than pubertal male mice, and that gonadectomy didn’t eliminate sex differences in immune responses.

 

Two newspaper articles were written about the paper: one by Times Magazine, and one by Metro News. We thought it might be interesting to compare how the two different news outlets reported on the scientific study and whether or not they accurately portrayed the study’s results. Though our analyses attempt to be objective, keep in mind that there is always a bias, intentional or not.

 

Times’ main demographic is the educated, middle class; the median age of their readers is 50, the median household income is $74,981, and 73.8% have attended/graduated college. Their article was authored by Amanda MacMillan, a health writer who majored in journalism/science writing and minored in physics.

 

The Times article, at first glance, seems to be a very credible and well-researched piece on how illness affects men and women differently. The author references five different studies throughout the article, asks a subject-matter expert (Sabra Klein) who has no affiliation with the mouse study (so the article isn’t coloured by the biases of the mouse study), and includes various disclaimers like “studies done in lab animals do not necessarily apply to humans, so this research should be taken with a large grain of salt,” and “the scientific evidence for [man-flu] is far from conclusive.” The article is written as an objective summary of all the findings on ‘man-flu,’ and doesn’t seem to have any bias.

 

However, if we take a look at all the studies that are referenced, we notice that all of them support the idea that men are more affected by illness than women. There are no studies mentioned that disprove this notion, though they exist. Additionally, her implicit viewpoint, that man-flu does exist, is built on flawed arguments that seem perfectly reasonable at the outset.

 

Her first argument for why man-flu exists is that research has shown male immune cell receptors to be more active than female immune cells, which causes a stronger immune response (the immune response is what causes us to feel ill) in males. She then uses the mouse study (“male mice displayed more symptoms of sickness than females when they were exposed to bacteria that cause an illness with symptoms similar to the flu”) and Klein’s study (“Klein’s 2015 study on human cells, for example, found that estrogen-based compounds made it harder for a flu virus to infect the samples”) as evidence.

 

Essentially, she’s presenting the study about a mouse’s reaction to an LPS receptor pathway (a receptor for bacteria which has nothing to do with the flu), and says that this is applicable to humans because Klein, the subject matter expert, said that other “studies with human cells—as well as in mice—show that male immune cells have more active receptors for certain pathogens.” It’s important to note that the LPS receptor was not specifically mentioned, just ‘certain pathogens,’ so the logic linking the mouse’s reaction to that of a human immune system is tenuous at best. Additionally, the specific study (Klein’s 2015 study) the author references on human cells is on compounds that encumber flu viruses; again, the flu virus has absolutely nothing to do with LPS receptors.

 

Her second supporting point is that “men have evolved to have weaker immune systems and lower immunity because of their tendency for risk-taking behaviors,” directly contradicting her first argument that male immune cells have a stronger immune response than female cells. If men have a stronger immune response, they do not have weaker immune systems. The research itself may give contradicting explanations, which is fine, but the author uses this study as additional evidence to her first argument. Her third point, that other research suggests that because women more easily pass pathogens onto their children, they’ve built up more natural defenses against them,” also contradicts her first argument.  

 

Overall, the author cobbled together a bunch of different studies that investigated different hypotheses, different pathogens (viruses and bacteria), different immunological responses, and different species, and uses all of them to support her viewpoint that men are more affected by illnesses than women. Though the thesis is never stated explicitly in the article (except for in the title, which may be misconstrued as it is worded ambiguously), the manner in which the author has presented the studies leads readers to conclude that men are more affected by illness.

 

This article plays on the fact that Times’ readers are generally well-educated people who expect good logic and lots of sources. It appears this way on the surface, but the arguments are flawed and it’s hard to see how they are flawed unless you read the specific studies the author references. This just goes to show how important it is to read critically, no matter how credible the article and author may seem at first glance.

 

Metro’s articles are tailored more for the general public. Their free daily print issues can be found on the subway and their reporters “tell the stories of the people who work, move about and enjoy the cities we live in.” This vision is reflected in their staff as well; the Metro article was written by Adam Kveton, a writer for stories centred around the Ottawa region.

 

The Metro article featured the headline “Ottawa researchers finds man-flu is real.” A title can convey a lot of meaning. Not only is it likely the pitch, but it can also colour the reader’s expectations for what conclusions to take away from the article before they’ve even read it. In this case, the author has either intentionally or unintentionally framed this story in the form of debate, and made a ruling before we get to read further.

A group at the University of Michigan, whose mission is to provide tools to identify and analyse bias in news media, say that conflict is one of the most common frames. In this article the audience has almost been set up to take sides before any more context is given.

According to Metro News, the idea that men go overboard when complaining about the severity of their symptoms when sick, is “real.” Two sides are presupposed: on one side men have a weak constitution and exaggerate their symptoms to get attention (i.e. illegitimate); on the other, men feel the symptoms of illness more than the opposite sex because of a biological imbalance between the two sexes (i.e. legitimate). The title also connects this article to a larger discussion on societal gender norms which has the potential to polarize the audience to have a certain expectation or judgement before they even read the actual article.

The title frames this scientific finding through the lens of conflict and tells the audience what to expect, but how does the body influence our interpretation of the scientific finding? To attempt to answer this question, we will next look at the use of direct quotation to convey information.

Most of the information is presented through direct quotes from the director of the lab. This automatically lends credibility to the article. Although the head researcher is an authoritative source, it is worth noting that the actual research paper is almost never mentioned. This piece of reporting is supported by the authority that the lead researcher on this research gives using direct quotes. Therefore, any bias is reinforced by that authority. For example:

“…“We were really surprised, and at first, we were like, ‘Is this real?’” said Nafissa Ismail, director of the NISE lab. But, after replicating their result twice in the lab, Ismail had little doubt…”

The reporter is informing us on what is ‘real’ (i.e. the man-flu), and telling us that this scientist has little doubt that it is. Few findings are presented from the paper, and then used to support the conclusion of the researcher. It is also worth pointing out that research to the contrary is not presented in contrast to this finding, or acknowledged.

Only once does the reporter attempt to question the validity of the finding, when he states: That is, if the effects of flu-like symptoms on mice are any indication.

This of course outlines a very important question posed by scientists and philosophers alike, which is: are animal models predictive for humans? A question well explored by a paper of the same name, published in 2009 by Shanks et al. in the Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine. They state:

“If a modality such as animal testing or using animals to predict pathophysiology in human disease is said to be a predictive modality, then any data generated from said modality should have a very high probability of being true in humans. Animal models of disease and drug response fail this criterion.”

This debate has many wide-ranging implications for modern medical science, and it looks as if there will not be a definitive answer anytime soon. The reporter does not provide context or explanation to the question of the validity in correlating an observed sex-asymmetry in flu symptoms across species.

There is an inexhaustible array of lenses which can be used to analyze any piece of journalism. Whether intentional or not, we have demonstrated how the title influences the interpretation of what is ostensibly an informative piece on newly published research. We have also briefly shown how a lack of an alternative viewpoints can create an unbalanced piece of journalism, biased to a single interpretation of the scientific findings.
This exercise is a good reminder that we should all be skeptics, and to never take anything at face value. Even if the author didn’t mean to take a side, the style of writing, the word choice, and the facts chosen to illuminate an issue all do end up biasing a piece of writing. This isn’t limited to just journalism; though the analysis was done on news articles, there’s sure to be bias in the scientific studies themselves. That bias may not be limited to how their findings are reported through words, but also through the methodology used, the data they chose to support their claims, and even the instruments they used to observe the data. At the risk of sounding preachy, during an age where information is ubiquitous and anybody can publish their thoughts to the world, it’s important for us to be smart and to not believe everything that’s written on the internet (or in a newspaper).

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