Letter to the Washington Post’s Public Editor Regarding Poor Science Reporting

I emailed this to the Washington Post’s Public Editor 5 weeks ago, and was disappointed to get not even a perfunctory answer.

Dear Mr. Feaver,

As a professor of psychiatry and addiction treatment researcher at Stanford University, I was very disappointed that the Washington Post was among the news outlets that reported almost verbatim from a press release the claim that Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine.

As I described on our university’s medical school blog, the “proof” for this assertion was an undergraduate research project at Connecticut College which has not been published, peer-reviewed, or indeed even presented in any public forum.

Yet this Post story by Valerie Strauss took a stenographic approach, passing along the claims of the press release almost word for word. Indeed, her story even reproduced the photo and large block quotes from the release. Ms. Strauss barely added any words of her own to her article, and certainly none that conveyed appropriate skepticism.

It is to the Post’s credit that a few days later Stephanie Pappas wrote a critical column about the study, quoting an expert who pointed out the fatal flaws in the research. However, it is worth noting that while her article opened with a dig at the “blared headlines” about the study at Fox News and Time, it did not own up to the fact that The Washington Post itself was among those media outlets which uncritically passed along the sensational and untrue statements in the press release.

I understand the pressure to publish and to do so quickly. But I would like to see leading newspapers such as yours implement some policies to ensure that speed does not trump accuracy. It could involve allowing only journalists with relevant science background to write science stories. It could require reporters to at least talk to one critical expert before passing along a press release as fact. In an era where every month there are press releases claiming that new studies show that climate change is a hoax, or that the MMR vaccine causes autism, I am not the only person who counts on your great paper to filter the wheat from the chaff.

Keith Humphreys

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.