This is a guest post by Fiona Lethbridge, Senior Press Officer at the Science Media Centre. This blog is an update on a project the SMC was asked to develop by the Academy of Medical Sciences in their report, ‘Enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicines’.
29 press officers (representing around 20 different institutions) who have been using the labelling system this year kindly completed a survey we put together to find out how they have found it. Around 40 institutions are currently using the system routinely.
Most people said it made little or no difference to how they worked or to what their press releases ended up looking like. One remarked “We have always erred on the side of caution in our releases. They have always been deliberately very sober. However, the labels are a neat way of distilling that levelheadedness.” One said “I’m sceptical that the labels will change anything, but nor do I see any harm in using them. There is at least some transparency when using them.”
17% said the labelling system had or might have changed the type of language they used in their press releases (and 41% said they didn’t know if it had done or not). 7% had had occasions where using the system had led to them deciding not to issue a press release (and 34% said they didn’t know if it had done or not) – one person said “Generally speaking we wouldn’t press release non-peer reviewed research but this has cemented that stance… This has helped me say ‘no’ more firmly to researchers wanting PR for non-peer reviewed research.” Another person said the system had probably changed the type of language they used in their press releases “subconsciously, as its the first thing you lay out on the page, so going forward you have the type of relationship – causal/association – in the back of your mind”, and another said “double-checking a study to populate the labels could have caused us to hedge a bit or pay more attention to causal language”.
55% said the system might have made them more confident in press releasing certain studies – one person said the system was “a useful tool to calm fears of academics who want to ensure their research isn’t over-egged”.
Around 34% said using the system had or might have affected how likely they were to include caveats in their press releases, and around 24% said it had or might have impacted how high up in the release those caveats appeared. One said “I am more likely to expand upon caveats of animal research in every release now.”
Around 24% said using the system had or might have changed the headline they gave a press release – one said “Yes! When I get a draft press release in… and they’ve been very certain about ‘causes’/’shows’ etc. in the headline, I can take a quick peek at the labels, and soften it down if it’s only observational.”; and another said “Perhaps in some cases we’ve made it clear that animals are involved in research in the headline.” 20% said it had affected how likely they were to mention the type of animals used in relevant press releases.
Around 24% said the system had or might have been helpful to junior or new colleagues in the press team. Around 52% suggested their team had learned by using the system or had discussions about press releases they wouldn’t otherwise have had – one said “It has been a springboard to train colleagues about spotting and understanding different types of studies.”
Around 24% said using the system had or might have helped them during their conversations with study authors, and around 28% said it had or might have led to them asking questions of authors they wouldn’t otherwise have asked.
And around 24% thought using the system had some effects on the way they write press releases, other than those specified above.
About 28% thought, anecdotally, that the inclusion of the labels might have had some effect on media coverage of their stories – one said “I think it’s possible that it might have prevented some hyped coverage (with the net result that we weren’t covered by that outlet for that paper, but we’re super okay with that if the alternative is hyping).”
All but two press officers found the system quick and easy to use, and for most it had become part of their press release-writing routine.
Around half had had an occasion where they needed to make up their own study type label, so we will have another look at the labels available and may add a couple more options in. Some also requested that the labelling system be broadened out to cover environment and science rather than just health and medical topics, so we will think about that too. Several people said they would like it if EurekAlert was to implement the system as part of its press release-uploading procedure so that the process would be standardised and everyone would use it, and others asked whether there were plans to try and get more international journals involved – we would love for both of these things to happen!
Some said they thought the content of the press release itself was more important than the labels – we agree, but we take heart in the fact that some responders said that simply using the labels did change the sort of language they used in the body of the press release.
So, we had a mixed response, and we are clearly lucky to have very responsible press officers in the UK. We’re keen to keep the system going in order to maintain the benefits for those that did find it helpful (and hopefully to widen those benefits by reaching other press offices and encouraging others to implement the system). The system was designed to be one extra tool in the arsenal of things press officers can use to ensure responsible and accurate reporting of their stories, and we hope it will continue to be!