How researchers get heard
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TTLT: Screening Sunscreen

Would you rather:

a) Read a scientist’s accessible and well-written 850-word breakdown on the evidence about whether sunscreens are harmful to us — and how we should respond?


b) Watch a four-minute video by the same scientist doing the same breakdown and giving similar advice?

Before you answer quickly, here’s Aaron Carroll’s new 850-word piece “How Safe is Sunscreen?” for The New York Times’ The Upshot — and here’s his video on the issue for Healthcare Triage Newson the same topic.

The Times’ article reprises much of the video’s language as well as its conclusions. And in the video, Carroll is an animated, even puckish narrator. (Or perhaps annoying; YMMV.)

So why do I think the Times’ version is much, much more effective?

Because it provides the full context of making research-informed decisions in the context of known risks, versus merely communicating research.

And providing that context is a critical role of research thought leadership.

First, the Times’ version doesn’t just give us the results of a new study. It gives us the whole scientific picture on sunscreen in its first four paragraphs:

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US.
  • Sunscreen is “one mainstay of prevention.”
  • But there’s been new research that sunscreen ingredients get absorbed into your bloodstream.
  • The FDA will offer some guidance on the safety of these ingredients later this summer.
  • What should you do this summer, though?
  • Keep using sunscreen — because the only proven risk so far to your health is from too much sun exposure.
  • You might want to switch to different sunscreens if you want to play it really safe.

The rest is background on all that. Interesting background, but you can stop at any time and not have missed much. You know what you need to know in under a minute. An authority has digested things for you and led you.

Second, the Times’ version economically summarizes the new research’s findings, keeping them in proportion to the larger context. It spends more time on the FDA process of evaluation as well as the known risks and benefits of using sunscreen.

Third, it’s memorable about the right things. For instance, the Times’ version drives home one of its main points — that just because these ingredients can be absorbed doesn’t mean they’re unsafe — with a photo and a caption. If I’m skimming, that’s what I’ll remember.

A crucial point worth repeating: communication is about what we’ll remember. Not about all the knowledge you give us.

The video is a very different animal.

First, it delays Carroll’s conclusion until the end, which ends up emphasizing the findings of the JAMA study.

Second,the video really spends a lot of time trying to communicate the JAMA research visually — which also ends up overweighting those findings and the uncertainty around what’s next, in comparison to the Times’ piece.

And those findings look really alarming as Carroll takes us through how very much each ingredient exceeded the FDA’s trigger line for a nonclinical toxicology assessment:

All the components of the video are screaming “WE SHOULD BE VERY CONCERNED!” about the levels of chemicals our bodies are absorbing when we put on sunscreens — including:

  • The time Carroll spends explaining each of these graphs;
  • The tall height of the bars in comparison to the FDA trigger line for a toxicology assessment;
  • The red color of that dotted trigger line; and
  • Carroll’s narration, for which he chooses startling phrases (e.g., “blew past the limit”) as well as shrugs, mugging and portentous intonation about what we still don’t know about these chemicals.

It’s like watching a European Aaron Carroll go on about the precautionary principle, and then reading an American Aaron Carroll balancing risks.​

Now, the video’s conclusion is that skin cancer is still a killer; that the JAMA findings aren’t evidence sunscreens are harmful; and that anyway, you still have options to deal with sun exposure, like wearing a sunshirt while going in the water.

But after the journey to that conclusion, I’d wager most people will walk away from this video with the impression that a) a new study casts serious doubt on whether ingredients in sunscreen are safe; and b) the FDA might or might not catch up with that, depending on whether companies will conduct their own safety studies or not; so c) we’re on our own to make these decisions.

Which feels like so much of research communications today: the alarming headline, the more alarming walkthrough of a single study’s findings, the clammy state of corporate/regulatory bedfellows, and a conclusion that, weirdly, ends up undercutting the authority of science as we once again have to make a decision we used to outsource to experts.

Takeaway: Research thought leadership can afford to be measured. Research communications, increasingly it seems, feels it cannot.

Which would you trust? Which do you want to produce?