The main subject of discussion at this year’s SMC Christmas bash was a new study published the same day, claiming that many of the exaggerations found in media reports of new scientific research were already present in the university press release. The study which analysed news stories from the press releases of twenty Russell group universities has already prompted a heated debate, with some keen to point out that journalists should be expected to correct exaggerations rather than regurgitate them, and with some press officers questioning whether the authors might themselves be exaggerating the exaggerations.
I don’t want to repeat the points made by Mark Henderson in his excellent blog, but I do have a few additional things I want to say.
Firstly, this research is really important. Critics of the SMC are not wrong when they point to the relative health of science PR to science journalism. At a time when national news organisations around the world have begun to shed science reporters, our specialists have the air of an endangered species, and of course those who remain are being asked to do a lot more work. Meanwhile science seem to have endless budgets for expanding our PR and communication operations, and while I don’t know the ratio of science press officers to science journalists, I am willing to bet that we are talking 20 to 1. This does not necessarily mean that journalism is in hock to PR, and I am critical of lazy commentators who infer that having more science press officers automatically produces a fest of “churned” press releases and spoon-fed reporters. But it does mean something. Or put another way, we should investigate whether it means anything. This study is important because it asks questions about the role that press officers play in the media coverage of science, and the possible role we play in some of the problematic aspects of that coverage. Of course we can and should challenge the findings and methodology, but those press officers who have told me they don’t much like the study per se need to ask whether we are saying that our role should never be studied.
I also think it’s important because people other than press officers need to reflect on the role. Commentary about science in the media has long neglected the role of science media relations, and I’m sure that the authors of this new study and people like Ben Goldacre would be the first to admit that it took a while after entering this world to figure out the importance of our contribution, for better or worse, to the final product. But many others still seem to leave press officers and releases out of the equation. If I wanted to get a laugh in a room full of scientists, I need only repeat the classic line that the Daily Mail has reported various items from red wine to antacids to coffee that either cause cancer, prevent cancer or sometimes do both. I’m not saying I’ve never had recourse to it with a room of stony faced chemists, but generally I don’t like it. I don’t like it because the Daily Mail’s specialist reporters are bloody good journalists, because they sometimes cover science stories better than posh papers, and because it’s actually a simplistic and uninsightful jape. Journalists don’t sit in morning meetings figuring out what will kill or cure us today, they take all these stories from new studies press released by universities and journals. The studies may look at the same product but will be done by different groups and types of researchers, designed in different ways, published in very different journals, be of variable size and significance, and be testing slightly different hypotheses. As a result the findings will often look very different, explaining the apparent contradictory reports in newspapers. Of course there is plenty of room for debate over which studies should have been done in the first place, those that should never have been press released, and whether some should have been rejected by the media, but my point is that these stories are the end of a chain which involves scientists, science press officers, journals and journalists. Things can and do go wrong at every stage of this chain, and getting our rocks off at the newspapers might be great fun but achieves little. If we want the press to stop delivering conflicting verdicts on the benefits or harms of red wine, mobile phones or coffee, then we need to stop funding multiple studies looking into these questions.
Which brings me back to my point. Those scientists who comment about this stuff publically and those who care about science in the media need to read this study and take the time to understand the process by which science appears in the media. And of course this cuts both ways. Poor old Ian Sample, one of our best science journalists, had the misfortune of having me as a chair when he told a science audience that he would consider he had failed as a journalist if he had to use a press officer. Ian went on to explain that as soon as he gets a press release he contacts the scientist directly. Of course Ian’s point was perfectly valid: he has not pursued his dream of reporting science only to get his stories in bite sized chunks from a press release. But in my little explosion (I thought I was calm but apparently the steam was visible) I explained that he would almost certainly not be aware of those studies if it were not for the press releases from university and journal press officers, that often those scientists he got to speak to were only available because a beleaguered press officer had intervened to stop them giving a key note lecture in Singapore on the day of publication and that many academics, even now, would simply refuse to speak to journalists if the benefits had not been explained by the press officer. With a few honourable exceptions (and a few media tarts that we should be wary of), behind most great scientists doing media work is a great press officer. I know that this is not always visible and I know that journalists are busy people, but my appeal here to all players is to be a bit more reflective about the roles being played out.
I also want to address a yawning gap in the tweeting and commentary on this study, and that is the efforts of science and the media to mitigate exaggeration. When I describe the SMC’s Roundups and Before The Headlines services to people for the first time they often don’t believe me. Why, they ask, would busy university scientists take the time to read a new study before release and provide comments for journalists which emphasise caveats and limitations? Why would press officers at universities and journals embrace this service from the SMC when the third party comments often play down the significance of their study and relegate it to the inside pages if not the spike, and why would journalists ask us for and routinely use these more sober comments? My answer is “because things are pretty good”. We have responsible scientists prepared to spend time to ensure that research in their field is not over-sold, we have university and journal press officers who want some coverage but know that a front page with the C word (cure) is not justified and we have specialist science, health and environment journalists who go out of their way to include third party experts who will ensure that a new claim is measured and placed in the wider context of previous findings. We need to celebrate all of this whilst also looking at what goes wrong, and where and how it could be fixed. As the authors of this study emphasise, the usefulness of the findings is partly for university press officers to understand the influence of press releases in shaping the reporting of new research, and consequently the power that gives them to be part of improving coverage and ensuring the public is getting the best possible information. That is the take home message of this study for me, and I will weep if that gets lost in a sea of defensiveness or a circular discussion about who is more to blame. We’re all in this together, and as science press officers we should welcome any good quality research that gets us talking and reflecting on how we can do things better…or not.
Fiona Fox sat on the advisory board for the study.
Chris Chambers (author of the study) is on the advisory committee of the SMC.
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.