Rather glad that Ben Goldacre chose to write about the "Facebook can give you syphilis" non-story from last week. It seems everybody's got it in for Facebook at the moment and while there's a lot you can complain about, some of the ridiculous stories written about the site take bad reporting to a whole new level. When somebody who struggles with most forms of maths and science at the best of times (ie me) can spot huge flaws in the science and maths and correlations, then chances are the facts behind said story are pretty poor.
It takes a huge leap from a public health official stating that social networking sites are making it easier for people to have casual sex, and thereby increase their chances of catching an STI, to saying that Facebook causes syphillis because Sunderland has one of the highest useages of the site. But linking them together requires such a huge leap of faith and doesn't take into account the possibility that you have a random cluster.
What annoys me on this, though, isn't so much the reporting (although bolting on an unrelated report isn't great), it's the press release in the first place. These are PR professionals working with public health professionals. You'd have thought one of them might just pick up that the social networking line would be the one that the media would leap on. Or perhaps they intended it to be that way ("Go on doctor, sex it up a bit. Throw in a reference to social networking. That'll get the buggers biting.").
Either way, you'd have thought some kind of facts to back up the claim, even if the form of a few notes to the editor, backing up or explaining the statement would have been good. Or, if you can't, let the professor throw out the idea in interviews, as his own opinion. At least you're then separating opinion from fact.
As somebody who has, in the past, probably been guilty of spewing out some bad science stories (busy newsroom, no science background, easy press release for a quick bit of copy), it's not helpful when press releases like this are thrown in our direction. If you decide not to run with the social networking angle, your editor sure as hell will.
I've long said that there's no much thing as adding too much information on science and health press releases, even if you do this as notes and let the release itself be eye-catching.
Going from past experience, the best science or health stories I did was when the press release was clear, explicit and assumed you were a science-idiot (which I was; still am) and laid everything out in as simple a way as possible. And were then very good at explaining and expanding, quickly but clearly, when I rang. Those that didn't probably led to misunderstandings and undid any work the press release may have done in the first place.
It's easy to chide journalists for getting science stories badly wrong (and the other stats-bolt on does no favours for this story). But if you're going to throw garbage into the news system, in the form of a poorly-thought through science-related press release then you're inevitably going to get garbage.