Science and Health News Reporting – The Case of the Regenerating Finger

Last week it was widely reported that an Ohio man, Lee Spievak, had regrown the end of his finger that had been chopped off in an accident. Reporters informed us, for example:

A man who sliced off the end of his finger in an accident has re-grown the digit thanks to pioneering regenerative medicine.

But this was not the real story. The true and amazing tale, rather, is of how the mainstream news media utterly failed to properly report this story. This is not an isolated incident, but a commonplace example of a broken system, and one that is getting worse. But first, let’s see how this reporting went wrong.

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame has done is usual excellent job of filling in the missing pieces. He writes:

Reconstructing the media frenzy, it all seems to have kicked off – this time around – with BBC New York correspondent Matthew Price doing a very credulous set of interviews that went live on the BBC site on Wednesday at 3pm.

Following these interviews a multitude of news outlets reported the story as it was spoon-fed to them, without doing any further research, without asking the basic journalistic questions, such as, “is this story really true as it is being told?” Rather, they seem to have followed the typical lazy journalist approach (by which I mean the approach of lazy journalists, with no disrespect to those who are doing actual quality journalism). They accepted the story at face value – that of an amazing scientific health breakthrough – and then plugged in appropriately “gee whiz” quotes from scientists, showed pictures that were designed to fit the story, and provided helpful animation to demonstrate what a regenerating finger would look like. The only problem is that the story is utter fiction, and the details the journalists plugged in were out of context and therefore completely misleading.

In the end, news reporting on this story served to confuse and misinform the public. They then left it to actual scientists to clean up their mess.

Here are the actual details of the story. Lee Spievak injured his finger, but the pictures clearly show that only the tip of his finger was cut. Although the angle of the photo shown by the media is highly misleading, because it makes it maximally difficult to see how much of the finger is missing, you can see that all three finger segments are still present and therefore the injury was to the very tip of the finger only. These kinds of injuries are common and often heal completely, without any special intervention. In the video interview, Spievak claims that his finger was chopped off below the last segment, taking with it the entire nail bed. But the pictures clearly show this is not the case – and yet this discrepancy did not trigger the slightest skepticism in the professional journalists reporting the story.

Next we are told that the “pioneering regenerative medicine,” whimsically referred to as “pixie dust” is a powder prepared from the extracellular matrix harvested from the inside of pig bladders. This all sounds sufficiently technical to dazzle the public, and apparently the reporters (more on this below). A quick conversation with almost any biologist or medical doctor could have informed the reporters that there is nothing special about extracellular matrix, and there is no reason to believe that it should have special regenerative powers. We are informed that the “pixie dust” was provided by Lee Spievak’s brother, Alan Spievak, who owns a biotech company that makes the pixie dust. Apparently, the fact that this news story would promote Spievak’s biotech company was not enough to trigger any journalistic skepticism.

Further – the injury and alleged regeneration took place over two years ago, in 2005. This is, in fact, the third time this same story has made the rounds in the media – so Spievak’s biotech company is getting a great deal of mileage out of this one tale. The entire affair reminds me of the Raelians, who in 2002 used the media to gullibly report their claim that they cloned a human, all to gain millions of dollars worth of free publicity.

Next, the news reporters put this non-story into the most sensational context they could. They relied upon Dr. Badylack, who is the chief science adviser for Acell, Spievak’s biotech company, for some objective commentary:

Dr Badylak said: “I think that within ten years that we will have strategies that will re-grow the bones, and promote the growth of functional tissue around those bones. And that is a major step towards eventually doing the entire limb.”

There are many scientists working on regenerative medicine. In fact the US military has recently committed to such research. We may make significant progress in the next 1-2 decades. But none of this has anything to do with the case of Lee Spievak. Speaking about regenerating entire limbs is a gross misrepresentation of its meaning. This was a case of completely normal healing – not regeneration, and there is no reason to think from the information available that Acell’s magic “pixie dust” has any useful properties.

To make matters worse, the BBC created animation showing more than half of a finger being regenerated – strongly implying that this is a reasonable representation of what happened to Spievak. Visual images like this have a huge impact on the impact a story makes and how people remember it.

So what went wrong with this story? Goldacre argues that the press failed because Matthew Price is a general reporter – not a science or health reporter. He therefore did not have the specific knowledge or experience to see that this story was bogus. The story then spread through other general reporters and editors, not health and science news desks. I agree that this is a major factor. It is further true that many newspapers and other news outlets, feeling the crunch of declining readership, are eliminating their science reporters and turning over their beats to general all-purpose journalists. Therefore, we should expect, if anything, more abysmal science reporting in the future from mainstream journalists and newspapers. Meanwhile, health and science news is becoming more complex, so the need for specialists is increasing.

But I don’t think this was the entire problem. One does not need specialized knowledge to crack this case. Basic generic journalistic curiosity and due diligence should have been enough. The story is old and is being recycled. What has happened to this “breakthrough” technology since? What do other experts – not on the payroll of the biotech company that stands to benefit from this story – have to say about this case and this technology? Why do the pictures provided seem to contradict the story that we are being told by Spievak and the Acell expert? Is this story really true?

Basic journalism.

On my podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, we interviewed Christopher Hitchens about the state of journalism today.  He had a great deal of criticism for his fellow journalist, and lamented that all too often reporters fail to ask the most basic questions about the story on which they are reporting. So this appears to be a generic problem within journalism – not unique to science reporting.

My sense is that this is simply a problem of mediocrity. Most people, by definition, are mediocre, or average, at what they do. So, by extension, most journalists are probably mediocre too. But the state of modern science and medicine is extremely complex – beyond the ability of the average journalist to do justice. Therefore, as is my experience, most reporting on complex science and health stories get significant details wrong, fail to put the story in an informative context, and tend to equate the authority of individuals with the authority of the scientific community or a strong consensus. These problems are exacerbated by controversial topics, or ones that involve fraud or deception.

To be fair, there are many excellent science news reporters out there, but they seem to be outnumbered by the mediocre masses.

To end on a positive note, I think there is another trend that has the potential to largely remedy the problem of poor science reporting. The internet has provided a medium for scientists with an inclination for teaching to bypass traditional media and go straight to the public, with blogs, podcasts, vodcasts, and whatever comes next. There is now an army of scientists who are truly experts who, in there spare time, can explain to the public the real story behind mainstream media misreporting, and who can put such information into a helpful and insightful context. The public has casual and free access to more and higher quality information than ever before.

I suspect this is largely why readers of traditional media are slowly dying off while younger consumers are increasingly going to the internet for their news and information.

If you are reading this blog, I suspect you might agree.

Posted in: Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (11) ↓

11 thoughts on “Science and Health News Reporting – The Case of the Regenerating Finger

  1. weing says:

    I think that you are too kind. This is not mediocrity. This is incompetence.

  2. Harriet Hall says:

    There is a new website, “Help a Reporter Out”

    It’s a way to put reporters in touch with sources. Most of the queries have been silly things like wanting to interview people who have lost a pet, but yesterday a reporter asked for information about macrobiotic diets and I was able to send her a list of on-line resources that I hope set her straight. She thanked me and said it was very helpful, but I have no way of knowing how her article will turn out.

    I think its a promising concept. It grew out of Facebook.

  3. qetzal says:

    I agree that the complexity of science and medicine contributes to many of the problems with science journalism.

    However, I think this specific story illustrates a different major problem. All too often, the reporter’s goal seems to be to get a story, when it should be to get the truth (or at least, a true story).

    I think this is also a major problem with reporting on CAM and woo.

  4. Karl Withakay says:

    I don’t know how positive your positive note really is. Traditional media should act as a filter on news, ensuring that only accurate, factual news makes it to the end reader, to give us a trustworthy source of information.

    The greatest strength of the internet is also it’s greatest weakness. Yes, scientists can bypass the traditional media and go straight to the public, but so can any nut job and snake oil salesman. In this day and age, it seems the many internet users are incapable of common sense judgment in regards to the quality and accuracy of content (and sources of content) on the internet, “I read it on the internet, so it must be true!”

    The internet hasn’t really helped snuff out Homeopathy and other CAM, instead it has helped it blossom by providing venues free of genuine critical review and independent verification of claims for unfiltered transmission of woo-woo bunk. For every site like this & Respectful Insolence, there are a dozen others promoting every kind of woo imaginable.

    As a side note, the internet has a way of making bad information immortal. Once it’s out there, it seems like some bad information (look up Mars Spectacular on Snopes, it has came back every year since 2003) keeps popping up no matter haw many time it gets a stake driven into its heart. I’m sure this pixe dust story will be around for a few years, along with the one about the kid who corrected NASA’s math about the chance of that asteroid hitting the Earth.

    I love the internet and especially sites like this, but sometimes I do actually wonder if is has an overall net positive effect or not.

  5. Brian Robinson says:

    Many journalists are lazy, but no more so than in any other profession. There’s also pressures brought on by the Internet and by the 24/7 news cycle reporters are under. Most pubs are cutting back on their reporting staff, while at the same time requiring reporters to write for print, online and now also perhaps report for podcasts and vodcasts. Also, pubs have steadily been cutting back on their science specialists and using generalists to report science stories, with the inevitable drop in quality because of that (and which points to your comment about complexity).

    That’s not to excuse laxity in reporting. I totally agree that many reporters don’t ask the questions today that they should. As a 30-year participant in the craft, one of the first lessons I was taught was to always ask one more question — or, at least, there’s always at least one more question you can ask.

    However, I find in your post a large measure of blog-based triumphalism, a “gotcha” smugness that pervades the whole area. You sit back, see the stories, and then have the time and werewithal to write 1,500 words on the issue, something no working journalist is ever given (time and space) on a breaking story these days.

    You also use terms such as “widely reported” that is itself the mark of lazy journalism. Did every outlet that reported on the story report it the way you described? What is mean by “widely”?

    Instead of writing about the lazy MSM journalists — what many blogs that write about the MSM seem to be focused on these days — why don’t you write about the need for more specialist journalists to write about these complex issues? Perhaps you could advocate for that?

    You did note that there are journalists around who try to do a thorough job, and thanks for noting that. The wider problem, though, is the lack of attention many publications pay to complex issues such as science and technology (beyond the wizz-bang consumer stuff). These areas have become devalued in the modern, celebrity-driven world. Acknowledging these gaffes is OK, but what do you do about it? Give it over wholly to blogs?

  6. Unfortunately, this is a topic the general public and scientists know very little about and one I hope to educate the public on in a book I’m working on. (I’ve been working on it for quite some time. Writing is extremely difficult for me and I’m not good at it.)

    A few observations. There are different kinds of media. One consists of mainstream journalists. The other is the promotional media that alts use in which they publish “magazines” and “books” or rather promotional material disguised as such to deceive potential customers and protect themselves from false advertising charges under the “free speech” defense.

    The mainstream media is in the business of selling copy. To do that they need “interesting” stories. They also don’t want lawsuits which can be very expensive even if they win so they tend to shy away from reporting anything controversial unless it has been reported somewhere else even if that is a tabloid or until a lawsuit has been filed. Then they can say, It was alleged that…., and cover their butts.

    Aside from maybe finance and politics, mainstream journalists almost never look at documents or primary sources. They do what I call, He says, She says reporting. Dr. Smith says acupuncture makes knee pain go away. Dr. Jones says there are no good studies showing that. The whole report is about what Drs. Smith and Jones say. The journalist almost never asks for and checks references although with Doc Smith’s help he may find and interview people whose knee pain was “cured” by acupuncture. And journalists rarely check or explain credentials giving equal weight to what an ND and a Ph.D say about a supplement even though most of the general public has no idea that an ND, a naturopath, is not a practitioner of a scientific discipline. Heck, with many journalists anyone who writes a book and is willing to speak on camera is an “expert”.

    The media feeds on itself. I can’t tell you how hard I tried to tell the media about the silver fraud and get them to report it. In desperation I finally went to a local reporter who did a story for a local paper which was picked up by another local paper and the AP. From there it took off literally around the world eventually getting some help from Stan Jones but not Paul Karason. (Those of you who have followed the silver scam know them.)

    However, a very large percentage of the “stories” you read in papers and see on TV aren’t stories at all. They are press releases disguised as news. I have tried filing a complaint with the FTT, but they weren’t interested. Media people tell me that this is “frowned upon” and that “they” can’t get away with it in “major markets”. An FTC lawyer told me it is illegal. Legally they have to label a press release as an ad.

    About 10 years ago a network affiliate in my area broadcast a nightly segment on health on the 6 O’Clock News. In it it appeared as if the anchor was interviewing the people who spoke and one assumed that she had researched their stories. One night they showed a woman who they said was having hot flashes but was afraid to take HRT because of a history of breast CA in her family. So she took soy products instead! According to the report, soy contained “natural” estrogen so it was beneficial and safe! They told you about all the wonderful natural soy products you could get at your local health food store.

    I was horrified. I picked up the phone and called the station. When I had breast CA in 1984, I bought a copy of De Vita. Although I wasn’t current on the topic in the 1990s, I remembered that estrogen is contraindicated in some types of breast CA. I asked the woman on the phone how they could suggest that women at risk of getting breast CA take a product that they claimed contained estrogen. It could be downright dangerous. She said, “Oh, we didn’t do that report. We got it from a syndicate.” Soon after they started including a number where you could find “more information” on each topic they reported on. You eventually got to an Internet site that provided ready-made interviews for TV stations where you could see the photos shown on your TV and read the script the anchor had read. The anchor had never met the people she appeared to be interviewing. Those segments were aired, and probably still are, as “news” across the country.

    Many local papers, and perhaps regional ones too, print press releases in the guise of news articles. Once you are aware of the fact they are easy to spot. In 1997 I was most annoyed by one appearing in my local paper advertising a new “drug free” health clinic that used Chinese herbs. I wrote a letter to the editor never believing that they’d print it, but hoping they would, I also gave them copies of the references I cited. I used that letter with a slight modification in the introduction as a blurb I posted on my webpage on Chinese Patent Medicine.
    They did print my letter. No one ever complained about it to me personally or publicly, and the “drug free clinic” is no longer around here. I heard they moved. I hope they closed.

    I stopped watching TV and reading the mainstream media years ago because I don’t believe them. I do check the news on Google just to make sure I don’t miss something major.

  7. In my post above FTT should be FCC.

  8. joel_grant says:

    I think there are two major ways to approach this.

    One way, taken by some of the commenters, is to talk about the difficulties, in general, of reporting complicated stories. Everything they have written has seemed reasonable to me.

    Another way – my way of looking at this – is to focus on this particular story.

    I remember seeing this and immediately thinking something like: I’ll bet this is bogus.

    Now I didn’t think that because I am a brilliant science journalist. I am as average as they come.

    I am simply in the habit of being skeptical of odd or extraordinary claims. Some guy, after a sprinkling of “pixie dust” grew back part of his finger?

    Does that sound like an ordinary or an extraordinary claim to you?

    I sort of dismissed it as silly on the grounds that, if there was something to it, it would be big news sooner or later. And now (sooner) it turns out to be just another bogus tale.

    The moral, to me, is the value of skepticism as an ordinary, average person’s defense against nonsense. The reporter who wrote this story could have been in the habit of doubting but was not.

    If being a skeptic is part of the training for a journalist, the results do not seem all that obvious to this average Joe(l).

  9. durvit says:

    In the UK, there was a lot of fuss earlier this year about the phenomenon of churnalism and the loss of specialist reporters in areas such as health and science.

    Will Science Blogging Absolve the Mainstream Media of the Need to Provide Science Coverage? This was quite a dense and wide-ranging discussion of whether science blogs can take up the slack from the under-resourced mainstream media and the answer seemed to be that bloggers are even more under-resourced, some may be knowledgeable, but there is a lot of mis-information out there. Chiming with your observation about the power of the BBC animation, most bloggers don’t have the software, skills or time to do that, much as they know it would enhance their presentation.

    There have been ‘utterly weird’ suggestions for narrow-cast news where everything is rigorously fact-checked, sources identified, and the story ‘relevant’ etc.

    Much as I like this utopian vision, ‘utterly implausible’ might be more accurate than “utterly weird”. The Royal Society guidelines on health and science communication (here for some extracts) are impeccable and thoughtful. However, if these guidelines were followed, there would be even less science coverage than there is now. If quality and accuracy were included as criteria for assessing coverage, then the true level of adequate science and health reporting might possibly paint an even bleaker picture.

    It does seem as if some subjects are more suited to feature length items that allow for detail and nuance but the market impetus seems to be for simpler, shorter items. And, as demonstrated today, you can’t have a discussion about science when people spring obscure papers on you and mis-represent them – there’s no opportunity to correct the mis-information. This certainly seems like a common tactic in the UK and serves to create confusion about the state of the evidence and lead to the “a plague on both your houses” attitude.

  10. ellazimm says:

    I live in England and my six-year old son saw the story reported on the six pm evening news program. He remembered it clearly and made a point to mention it to several people so impressed was he with the idea of being able to regrow bits of your body. He even told me that someday we will probably be able to regrow whole arms and legs.

    I tried to impress upon him that while lots of things were possible the situations were usually pretty complicated. I hate to talk down his wonder and “anything is possible” attitude; I think we should all try to not limit our explorative thinking. I hope I can teach him to be imaginative tempered with constructive critical thinking and in that way the story might have some benefit. But how many people, seeing something on the highly respected BBC news, are going to be less skeptical?

  11. apteryx says:

    I just used this post to stomp on a friend’s optimism this morning:

    “Did you see the thing about the guy who regrew–”
    “No! They made it sound like he got the whole joint cut off and the bone grew back. It was really just the fingertip.”
    “But this pixie dust sounds pretty impressive anyway. It’s made from pigs’–”
    “The guy’s brother sells it.”

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