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4  The ‘traffic light wheel’: a general reader visualisation tool to evaluate the quality of media news items on research evidence in EBM
  1. Trevor Treharne
  1. University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

Abstract

The media is the public’s primary source of research evidence in EBM. However, research evidence in EBM is regularly portrayed in misleading and inaccurate ways in media news items. Such media coverage poses a threat to informed public decision-making and results in news claims that are detrimental to public health, impacting health care utilisation and medical non-compliance. Readers of media news items struggle to identify accurate news items. This issue is rife in health and medicine reporting and of the 20 most-shared articles on Facebook with “cancer” in the headline, more than half report claims discredited by doctors and health authorities. The problem is a combination of misleading news items from the media, lower quality evidence being widely distributed by universities and journals, and the general public’s difficulty in identifying good science in media items. While grading scales on the quality of research evidence have been developed by the WCRF, the SIGN and the OCEBM, the media has continued to consistently use lower quality evidence in its reporting. This paper proposes the development of a ‘Traffic Light Wheel’ – a six segment wheel which rates six aspects with a red (poor), amber (moderate) or green (good) colour rating. These six aspects will include four specific to the quality of the source research evidence and two on the quality of the media reporting. The first segment will cover ‘study design’ (red = animal studies, laboratory studies etc.; amber = observational studies, non-randomised studies etc.; green = systematic reviews, high quality RCTs etc.); the second segment will cover ‘evidence source’ (red = expert opinion, industry-backed etc.; amber = non-peer reviewed; green = peer-reviewed); the third segment will cover ‘consensus’ (cautions not negatives: red = against scientific consensus; amber = developing or contested area; green = with scientific consensus); and the fourth element will cover ‘sample size’ (red = low; amber = mid-level; green = high). The final two segments will specifically address the quality of the media news item. The fifth segment will cover ‘limitations’ (red = none reported; amber = partial mention; green = widely reported) and the sixth segment will cover ‘statistical claims’ (red = misleading; amber = adequate; green = accurate). The aim of the ‘Traffic Light Wheel’ is three-fold and addresses each of the three fault points in the public understanding of EBM. Firstly, on the problem of misleading news items from the media, it provides accountability to health journalists and media outlets to highlight when they have performed poorly in their reporting. Secondly, on lower quality evidence being widely distributed, it encourages scientists and in particular communications departments of universities and journals to focus on higher quality evidence. Thirdly, on the general public’s difficulty in identifying good science in media items, it provides an easy-to-use visualisation tool that rates the quality of research evidence and the quality of the news item covering it.

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