The peril of the press release

In a famous piece of media analysis, the average length of a soundbite in a US presidential election was found to have collapsed from 43 seconds in 1968 to just nine by 1988. Although the discovery led to plenty of head-scratching and fears about the “dumbing down” of political discourse, in the end it changed very little.

After the first day of the Circling the Square conference, it would be easy to conclude that the communication of science by the media is heading in the same direction.

Anyone who has read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News will be aware that mainstream journalism is in a crisis. Newsroom cuts have seen journalists forced to produce more copy in shorter time with less resources.  “Churnalism”, the phenomenon of reporting press releases or wire copy ad verbatim as news stories, has grown over recent years.

Science journalism is not immune to these woes, as illustrated by keynote speaker Dr. Andrew Williams, a lecturer in Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.  Williams, who investigates the news coverage of science, quoted one anonymous science journalist who complained they were now only able to dedicate an hour for a story, whereas once it would have been an afternoon or more.

As the field of science journalism has contracted, the science PR industry has grown to fill the vacuum.  Consequently, churnalism is now common in science reporting too.  Its not just the private, profit-driven media that’s effected.  Another speaker, Dr. Felicity Mellor of Imperial College, reported that even in the BBC up to 75% of science stories were sourced directly from press releases. But as long as good science is getting featured in major media outlets, is this a bad thing?

The issue, as Williams’ research suggests, comes with how science is translated into news stories via university or journal press releases. In a study into the reporting of medical research, Williams showed that a sizeable proportion of university press releases (30-40%) exaggerated or hyped the research findings or made them more determinist. They also added causal reasons for correlations, made extrapolations from animal research into humans and added other inferences not present in the original publication.

The exaggerations and hype of the press release were then repeated in the subsequent news stories. Despite this, Williams’ study also suggested that having a University press office hype research or remove any caveats seemed to make little difference in the rate of uptake of the story by the media. So why is science being communicated through press releases that exaggerate the original research and who is to blame?

All the speakers and panellists in the discussion panel were quick to absolve overworked and under-resourced journalists. Professor David Colquhoun (UCL) pointed the finger at scientists who sign off on a university press release knowing it misinterprets their research.  Rather than ensure accuracy, researchers are instead chasing impact by hoping work gets picked up by the national media. Colquhoun was also concerned that research itself was being framed to ensure greater numbers of publications in “glamour” journals and more media attention. (My understanding is that STS researchers refer to this behaviour as the “medialisation” of science).

Scientists often bemoan how their research is represented in the media, but the discussions at Circling the Square suggest they need to shoulder some of the blame. Unfortunately, there appears to be some blissful ignorance of their contribution to the problem. Williams observed that few scientists identified their media activities as either public relations or campaigning, even when they clearly were.

It seems rather than highlighting the complexities, messiness and uncertainties in science to the media, the science PR machine has resulted in a sanitised, overly positive presentation of research findings. Mellor suggested that less than a third of BBC science reports gave opposing views, undermining the suggestion that the BBC too often provides “false balance” in such stories. Even more worrying were indications that science PR campaigns stifled internal debate as scientists become worried about presenting findings that might undermine the overall argument.

All the panellists agreed the internet and blogging had revolutionised science communication. Now media outlets, such as the Guardian Science Blogs, can present the science direct (and without paying for it) from the experts themselves. Blogging also opens up the potential for the democratisation of science through online debates, and challenges established hierarchies through open access and public peer review. At the same time, can scientists themselves offer the needed reflection on their research that an investigative journalist might do?

As a scientist, I am passionate that science will continue to offer transformative technologies and discoveries that will benefit society in the future. This doesn’t mean I yearn for a technocratic idyll or agree with the more evangelical futurologists. Science must continue to be exposed to robust criticism through the media and by the public. Whether this can be achieved by publicising science through press releases reported directly in the media is questionable.

This post covers some of the discussions from the first day of the Circling the Square conference, hosted by the University of Nottingham’s Science and Technology Studies research group. Follow on twitter through #circlesq.

Further Reading

Toby H.L. Murcott and Andy Williams, Progress in Physical Geography, 2013 “The challenges for science journalism in the UK

Felicity Mellor, Stephen Webster and Alice R. Bell, 2011 “Content Analysis of the BBC’s Science Coverage

 

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29 Responses to The peril of the press release

  1. Pingback: Record of the Week (Week of 19 May 2014) « STS Turntable

  2. there is something wonderful in the democratization of information, but the quality is definitely suffering. wikipedia is now a trusted resource, when it was a dubious novelty but a few years ago. not sure where it’s all headed

  3. Excellent and very thoughtful analysis. I would add that, in my experience, many of the journalists who end up writing about science – not the specialists in science, but the general-assignment reporters – have little or no training about things like statistical analysis or experimental design. So they don’t have the skills to identify results that are overhyped or questionable, or to ask the right kind of critical questions about how a study was structured. Or, they assume that anything from a university must involve really smart people who know more than them, and so they repeat it unquestioningly. These realities further exacerbate the problems identified in your post.

    • Ali TT says:

      Thanks Fiona. I had a heated discussion with a friend a few weeks ago about whether to be a good science journalist you needed a scientific background. I was on the side of “not necessarily”, but I do share your concerns.

      I think the message I took from the conference was the issue with time that modern journalists face. Andy Williams had surveyed a number of science reporters and even very senior and renowned journalists complained about how the time pressure was seriously compromising quality. One example given was by a journalist who described how they’d once spend most of an afternoon on a science report (+ prep the night before), ringing up experts for opinions and other views. Now they’d be lucky to get an hour on one article. I don’t even think journalists steeped in the critical understanding of science would be able to give every story the justice deserved under these conditions.

      • I totally agree that this is a major problem. There’s also the issue of packaging the information. I’ve heard of some newspaper reader research which indicates that stories about health are popular – but that editors/publishers interpret that as readers wanting the neat-and-quick format, e.g. “study shows eating laurel leaves prevents cancer”. And that doesn’t leave a lot of leeway to talk about important information that could affect the validity and reliability of those results, such as sample size and methodology.

  4. The same argument would be valid about the media coverage of other fact-based stories including my field of business and tax law.

  5. Nancy Cavill says:

    Reblogged this on Tell me in two sentences… and commented:
    Sad at the growth of ‘churnalism’, especially in the regional press in the UK which still has a vital role to play in scrutinising politicians’ decisions that affect people’s lives in a very real way (think local councils and education cuts for starters)…

  6. Love the detail here. Thanks! 🙂

  7. Reblogged this on BookWhacked and commented:
    “Churnalism” the lazy man’s insight: to trust or not to trust what we read?

  8. agnophilo says:

    Its a concern but the trend toward tabloid journalism is an undulation not a reversal – the first newspaper to ever turn a profit was a tabloid gossip rag (co-founded by benjamin franklin if memory serves). Making money and doing straight news has always been a challenge.

  9. bonsaimartin says:

    The panelists agreed that, “the internet and blogging had revolutionised science communication.” Unfortunately, I don’t think the revolution has been in the right direction. Speaking as neither a scientist nor a journalist, I have pretty much given up reading science in newspapers and blogs because I no longer know who to trust or who really knows what they are talking about. You mention caveats and correlations rather than causes as two areas of concern to which I would add cherry picking. Since Ben Goldacre stopped writing for the Guardian I can no longer think of a science writer who inspires my confidence to give it to me straight. Considering that the public pay for a lot of this science it is more than a tragedy that we have essentially no reliably unbiased access to the discoveries and research our taxes are paying for.

    • Ali TT says:

      Thanks for your comment. The Guardian have taken the approach of hosting a blog space where scientists can become the writers. In one way, this is a positive mood- there is that direct link to the research and ability for readers to respond and engage to the scientists. Blogging and social media clearly provides a great opportunity for the public, journalists, policy makers and scientists to communicate directly, although I think only the surface is being scratched currently.

      On the flipside, scientists are scientists and not journalists. They may not be able or willing to write investigative articles or interview people for other/opposing opinions on a matter. They also do a lot of their writing for free as well, which presumably has a knock-on effect on professional science journalism too.

    • Indy says:

      I agree that the world needs more Ben Goldacres. http://www.badscience.net/

  10. zbsarian says:

    My observation is that some overhype their research activities because they are aiming at more funding for their projects from funding agencies.

  11. Duncan Cantor says:

    Working in the healthcare PR sector I see this ‘churnalism’ frequently and it fills me with horror. If I have a press release, the last thing I want is a verbatim reprint: what I really want is to interest the journalist in the story and for them to investigate, corroborate and write up an original piece. We clearly need more journalist in the world!

    • Ali TT says:

      Thanks for your insight. The voice of the PR person was definitely absent during the discussion at the conference and I’m intrigued that you are dismayed if one of your pieces is reprinted in the news. If the “hollowing out” of journalist positions continues in the media, doesn’t this place a responsibility on PR teams to ensure their releases are accurate? We may not expect all corporate press releases to tell the whole truth, but should we have higher expectations of the marketing departments at our Universities, research organisations and scientific publishers?

  12. Bill Bennett says:

    There’s no easy way out of this and no winners, except perhaps large companies with the most sophisticated PR operations. Hopefully credible sources will emerge through the noise.

  13. An interesting and informative read.

  14. Press Releases are both blessed and cursed by their expected brevity. Composing them is an art in itself, quite dissimilar in many ways from other forms of journalism.

  15. Kate Ames says:

    Reblogged this on Professional Communication @ CQUniversity and commented:
    An interesting piece on the possible role of press releases in misinforming the public about science.

  16. sunnykay says:

    Reblogged this on Project Sunshine and commented:
    When critical analysis meets communication channels at the speed of light, press releases are bound to be captured subjectively. For science, media needs to be part of the conversation, as this #circlesq post suggests.

  17. stockforda says:

    Reblogged this on stockforda and commented:
    The focus is on science journalism, but it’s a scarily accurate picture of the journalism industry in general.

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