‘Orwellian Prize’ for inaccuracy awarded to the Daily Mail

A University of Oxford professor has awarded her annual prize for “journalistic misrepresentation” to an outrageously inaccurate and scaremongering story published by the Daily Mail in 2011.

Dorothy Bishop, a professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford, gave out her first “Orwellian Prize” last year. Here’s the focus of the award:

I am offering a prize each year for an article in an English-language national newspaper that has the most inaccurate report of a piece of academic work.

The prize will consist of a certificate and statuette and I would welcome suggestions for the design of both of these.

A previous blog post laid out a range of rules and criteria. She uses a point system to determine the winner:

  • Factual error in the title: 3 points
  • Factual error in a subtitle: 2 points
  • Factual error in the body of the article: 1 point

So how many points did this year’s winner receive? 23! Very impressive work by the Mail.

The offending piece originally ran with the headline “Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can bring on schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory” That was later changed to “Just ONE cannabis joint ‘can cause psychiatric episodes similar to schizophrenia’ as well as damaging memory,” after a complaint was filed with the Press Complaints Commission.

When compared with the academic article the Mail story was based on, you see that none of those claims are correct. “Suffice it to say,  the academic paper is not about cannabis, smoking or schizophrenia,” Bishop wrote.

Below is Bishops’s annotated copy of the original story (items in red are three-point errors, two-pointers are in orange, and one-pointers are in blue):

For an even more detailed analysis of the article’s failures, read this post by Neurobonkers, which nominated the Mail story for the prize. That site previously delivered a must read fact check smackdown to another awful piece of drug reporting.

For her part, Bishop writes:

And here is what makes this article such a prime candidate for the Orwellian Award: this is not about a hyped press release by a university, or misunderstanding of complex science. It’s not even about sensationalising a scientific finding to draw readers in. No, this is about using a scientific paper as a prop in the Daily Mail’s anti-cannabis campaign … When reporting research, no respect is given to the truth: scientists are simply used to bolster a preconceived opinion, and if they don’t do that, their findings are distorted.

I just learned of Bishop’s award, thanks to a tweet from @SylviaStead that pointed to this Wall Street Journal blog post. But I’m already looking forward to next January, when she announces the 2012 winner.

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