Prepared by John Aspler, at the IRCM’s Pragmatic Health Ethics Research Unit and McGill University’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience
John graduated with a BSc in Neuroscience from McGill University in 2012, where exposure to a stream of problematic neuroscience-related news publications both cultivated and cemented in him an interest in improving science communication. John is currently pursuing a PhD at McGill and at the IRCM, where his work focuses on news coverage about FASD, alcohol, and pregnancy, the experiences of key related stakeholders, and the potential stigmatization they may face.
Science and health communication can be hard. For example, researchers or clinicians may struggle to avoid technical terms or to address gaps that exist between their specialized knowledge and public understanding. Journalists and news editors may also find it challenging to manage tensions between getting readers excited about a topic and the often complex and messy conclusions that come from a given study. When you add sensitive topics, such as FASD, to the mix, how we present information can contribute to potentially stigmatizing coverage.
With that in mind, we conducted a study about how information about FASD, alcohol, and pregnancy is presented in English-language newspapers across Canada. In general, we made note of some great coverage, but we also identified a few problem areas. We published some of those concerns in another article last year (summarized here) focusing on FASD and stereotypes.
In this new paper, we focused more on concerns around science and health communication.
From a search of articles published in ten of the top Canadian newspapers from 2002 to 2015, we identified fourteen themes. In this paper, we reported on the six science and health-related themes:
- Prevalence of FASD and of women’s alcohol consumption
- Research related to FASD
- Diagnosis of FASD
- Treatment of FASD and maternal substance use
- Primary adverse outcomes associated with FASD
- Effects of alcohol exposure during pregnancy
Exaggeration, contradiction, and a lack of social context
We identified many different areas of science and health-related coverage, but we focused on three clear examples to highlight the ethical challenges around science communication – as in, the communication of science and health-related topics to non-experts via, in this case, the news.
FASD is sometimes understood as a problem that affects Indigenous peoples more than others. In Canadian news coverage, we found many discussions connecting Indigenous communities to FASD – including discussions pushing back against that connection. In fact, when we look at the scientific literature about rates of FASD in different populations, we see a long history of FASD studies in Indigenous communities and very little in the rest of Canada. Furthermore, when the news discussed Indigenous communities where rates were higher, we found limited historical context about key factors, such as the residential school system.
One of the most difficult questions to answer about FASD has to do with the impact of alcohol on a fetus. How much alcohol, at what time, and for which person will alcohol use during pregnancy lead to an outcome of FASD? We don’t have the answer to these questions, except to say that more alcohol typically makes FASD more likely. However, we saw news reports suggesting that “light drinking” (a poorly and inconsistently defined term) could harm, not harm, or even benefit a child’s development – contradictions that could lead to confusion. This confusion reflects a challenge of science reporting: how to root coverage of a new study in the context of the existing literature – especially in areas where debate still exists. We suggested striking a balance between health messaging, the findings of the new study, and the weight of existing studies.
Lack of social context
One of the most common ways of describing FASD in our sample was as a ‘highly preventable disability’. These casual introductory phrases rarely offered explanations as to why someone might drink while pregnant – reasons like abuse, addiction, or lack of awareness of an unplanned pregnancy. That is not to say that news articles did not explore the complicated situations of, and reasons given by a variety of women, but that common definitions of FASD did not leave room for the actual challenges that women can face. It was not a surprise to us, then, that some of the more inflammatory op-eds in our sample suggested extreme measures to punish women who drank during pregnancy.
Individuals with FASD and women who drink while pregnant can face barriers and challenges related to social stigma. Some of those challenges could relate to the way science and health information is presented in public media. We identified three key areas of concern in both the academic literature and the news: Exaggeration (about FASD prevalence in Indigenous communities), contradiction (about the impact of alcohol on a fetus), and a lack of social context (about why someone might drink during pregnancy). Given the sensitive nature of this topic, we hope that this summary has helped bring attention to some key concerns around FASD messaging and its potential effects on vulnerable Canadians.