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Science reports should tell us why

When journalists report the findings of those ground-breaking studies that our lives depend on, they should help their audience understand what is really going on. Of course keep out all the jargon, show the impact of the new developments and so on. Crucially, let us know why.

On November 2, the Standard carried a report titled, “The good and bad on Kenya’s child cancer care” (p.3). Cancer is now a huge problem in the country.

Few people would skip a story about this killer.

The Standard reported that Kenya has the best child cancer survival rates in Eastern Africa, according to a new study. The research by African Cancer Registry Network compared rates of survival of children diagnosed with cancer in Nairobi, Harare (Zimbabwe) and Kampala (Uganda).

“Of all the children treated for cancer five years ago, more than half were found to be alive in Kenya. The number was less in the other countries,” the newspaper reported.

“Even when the scores were compared with survival rates in in South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi and Lesotho, Kenya still did quite well.”

Why? What is Kenya doing differently in the treatment of child cancer patients? The Standard report failed to answer this important question.

The story went on and on about the details in the study published in the International Journal of Cancer, but nothing was said about what accounted for the variations in survival rates – why Kenya scored better than other countries studied.

This is poor science reporting.

A similar story appeared in the Star on October 31 titled, “Big gains in life expectancy as Laikipia leads counties – report” (p.11).

Children born in Laikipia can expect to live for an average of 71.8 years, the report said. The findings were in a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research centre based at the University of Washington. The study was published in the Lancet Health Journal.

Homa Bay has the lowest life expectancy at 57 years.

The Star report gave life expectancy averages for all the counties. “Overall, health outcomes have improved in Kenya since 2006,” the story said.

What accounts for higher life expectancy in Laikipia County? The news report did not say. Why are other counties recording low life expectancy? No answer. Why and how have health outcomes improved in Kenya since 2006?

The variance reported in the two studies must have an explanation. It is doubtful the researchers did not address this question. What is more likely is the news reporters, for some strange reason, saw no point in including the explanations in their stories.

As in all journalism, the questions of why and how cannot be ignored in science reporting.

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