Cervical cancer vaccine, online news, Google and SEO

SEO expert Malcolm Coles kicked off an interesting experiment yesterday, to shift the emphasis in Google’s search results away from “negative and inaccurate information” (eg some news stories) linking a girl’s death to the cervical cancer vaccine and towards NHS pages about the vaccine.

More by Malcolm here about the tendency of some news stories to suggest (or make) a connection between the death and the vaccine.

He has been encouraging bloggers and others to publish web links, with relevant linked text, to influence Google’s search results, such as cervical cancer jab, cervical cancer vaccine, and cervical cancer vaccine Q&A.

So far, the NHS seems to have bought ‘sponsored links’ against some search key words, but I don’t see any of the NHS sites in the first page of Google’s search results for “cervical cancer jab”, which continues to be dominated by news stories.

Why journalists failed to predict the banking crisis

The developments that led to the current banking crisis seem to have been incremental, took place over a number of years, and together affected the whole system. Is that why journalists failed to see its demise?

I wonder about the role of human psychology, as one of many possible factors that worked against the reporting on developments that contributed to the current crisis.

…the most important “defaults” of the human mind are to look for discrepancies in the world, to ignore what is going on constantly, and to respond quickly to sudden shifts, to emergencies, to scarcity, to the immediate and personal, to “news”.

So wrote psychologist Robert Ornstein and biologist Paul Ehrlich in New World, New Mind nearly 20 years ago. They argue that the human brain is poorly equipped to tackle many modern challenges: still primitive, it responds primarily to dramatic sensory changes (fight or flight and all that). In contrast, contemporary issues that tend to be evident mostly through gradual changes are seen as less significant or urgent.

For millions of years these “defaults” of the mind have worked well. They do not work well in a world where 2 billion people could be killed by a simple misjudgment, and our defaults do not even work so well in the day-to-day world of modern life…

Ornstein and Ehrlich focused on environmental change — but perhaps their theory applies validly to other areas, too. A psychology of news values in journalism? You read it here first. Probably.

There’s a tenuous link with some of the more familiar factors being put forward. Alex Brummer, the Daily Mail’s City editor, says few financial journalists understood the systemic problems that were piling up. He also highlighted the difficulties for journalists in dealing with powerful PR and threats of having access withdrawn:

Brummer says that too many financial journalists are bamboozled by the ‘manipulative’ PR operations of big companies, and some are too fearful that they will lose access if they are too critical. ‘The duty of a journalist is always to be sceptical. But they are up against very powerful institutions who lie and cheat.’

James Robertson, who wrote the piece, also quotes Dan Bögler, the FT’s managing editor, on why his paper didn’t do better:

Why didn’t we spot it? Unfortunately, financial journalists — and the FT has better-trained financial journalists than others — don’t really understand this stuff, and they join a long list of people that starts with bank regulators, central bank regulators and money managers.

No journalists appear on the list of ten people who “predicted the financial meltdown”, compiled by the Money Central blog at Times Online (tagline: Advice you can bank on). Perhaps no surprise there, although there are some honourable exceptions, such as those mentioned in the comments on that post.

The Observer’s tangle with science story — now removed from website

The Observer seems to have pulled a front-page story from its website, after problems emerged with the article, which was published on 8 July 2007.
Observer front page 8 July 2007

The case raises some interesting questions not only about science reporting — but also about corrections and clarifications, and the importance of some journalistic essentials.

Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in The Guardian, has analysed the article in detail in his column and on his blog and in the British Medical Journal.

He’s expressed his concerns forcefully (follow the links above to read his detailed analysis):

I am pretty jaded and sceptical, but this front page story has completely stunned and astonished me. The misrepresentations and errors went way beyond simply misunderstanding the science, and after digging right to the bottom of it all, knowing what I know now, I have never resorted to hyperbole before, but I can honestly say: this episode has changed the way I read newspapers.

The difficulties lie not only with the original story, Ben suggests — but also with the clarifications from The Observer’s Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, which appeared in the two following issues: on 15 July and 22 July 2007.

Ben Goldacre’s assessment of the situation:

Two failed “clarifications” later that clarify nothing, and I am even less impressed. Retract. Delete. Apologise.

One of the journalistic failings seems to have been that no-one from The Observer apparently contacted Dr Fiona Scott, even before publishing the first clarification. She then posted some comments online, which The Observer published as part of its second clarification — again without having spoken to her or exchanged emails, it appears. However, it took Ben Goldacre a quick Google search and a couple of hours to get an email reply, as he notes in this post.

The original Observer article used to be online here. The Google cache of the original story is here — or at least it when I wrote this post. But if the article was pulled for legal reasons, perhaps it won’t be on Google’s cache for much longer.

Will The Observer run a third clarification next Sunday?

Meanwhile, credit to its sister paper, The Guardian, at least, for publishing Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column on the article.