Fertility and pregnancy get a lot of media attention. Often suggesting that a mother’s health and lifestyle are risk factors for her baby. Does the science justify the stories? Not entirely, and the problem might come from an unexpected source.
The progress of pregnancy research is dizzying. The latest advice when I was expecting my now four year old, is already looking outdated in conversations about my new nephew. The volume of research means there is no problem finding information.
The issue is curating it.
What to believe, what to act upon, and how to get through the whole process with your mind, bank balance and pelvic floor more or less intact is almost as daunting as growing an entire human. Especially as the media’s role in sharing these scientific discoveries can seem somewhat murky.
It was these issues that led to the creation of The WRISK Project. A collaboration between the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and researchers at Cardiff University with funding from The Wellcome Trust.
“The WRISK project came about because … women were presenting to BPAS’ abortion service worried that they had caused some irreparable harm to their fetus through something they had or hadn’t done before they knew they were pregnant” said Rebecca Blaylock, Research and Engagement Lead for WRISK
In work published last year, WRISK researchers looked for all the fertility and pregnancy news stories in the UK media over four months. They found plenty.
There were 171 headlines based on 56 new pieces of research. That works out to about 385 headlines over the course of a nine month pregnancy.
Anyone feel like reading all of that? No, me neither.
The content of these stories is depressingly predictable. 46 of the 56 unique pieces of research that made it into the media focused on potential risks caused by a mother’s health or behaviour (maternal food and drink was the most popular topic). But while 46 studies were concerned with outcomes for the baby, only 20 had an interest in what happened to the mother.
“Pregnant women expect to be given information on how best to care for themselves and their baby. This study found that lots of studies look for links between behaviours in pregnancy and child outcomes, but not all headlines tell the full story” said Julia Sanders, Professor of clinical Nursing and midwifery at Cardiff University
In the UK media, a pregnant woman is often merely packaging. Something to be scrutinised and judged, *(then left out for recycling once the precious delivery is extracted).
Surprising sources of misinformation
But perhaps I am being unfair to the press? The second part of the research had some unexpected results.
Looking in more depth at how the most popular research made the journey from academic paper to mainstream news, the WRISK team found inaccuracies and claims that weren’t backed up by evidence. But these problems didn’t come from journalists manipulating science into a juicy story. The culprit was usually a press release. Previous research has found a similar problem.
Press releases serve as both advert and intermediary. The WRISK study found that institutions issuing them can get carried away with trying to snag media attention, leaving out weaknesses in a piece of research, or suggesting advice that isn’t entirely warranted by the data.
Sometimes the problems came from the scientists themselves, giving quotes about the impact of their work that go far beyond what they actually have evidence for.
How to cope with the parenting information overwhelm? I’m not sure. I’m sat here writing a blog about research into writing about research. My head hurts. One thing I can perhaps take from this is that if it all feels a bit much, and a bit hard, that’s probably because it is.
Blaylock has some suggestions: “I’d advise trying to get hold of the original research … and seeing for yourself what the real risks are- but that is easier said than done. We can also challenge these headlines by simply turning off and not sharing them.”
PS. This piece is a little old, it was written for the sci com course I took last year. But I wrote it with this blog in mind so I’m sharing it here, just a teeny bit tweaked. The Wrisk project has now finished, although the website is still there and has lots of interesting stuff on it so I’ve left the link in. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Rebecca Blaylock for answering my questions even though it was just for a student project.