Science and the perils of the press release: who is to blame?

Researchers often bemoan the beatups in the media about their work, yet a recent UK study shows that many university press releases exaggerate or hype research findings or made them more determinist. UK scientist and blogger Alasdair Taylor looks at the risks of "churnalism" and asks in the wake of a recent conference: can scientists themselves offer the needed reflection on their research that an investigative journalist might do?

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 per cent 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 per cent) 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.

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

Thanks to Alasdair Taylor for permission to republish his post, which was first published on his blog and republished by the London School of Economics' LSE blog. Alasdair can be followed on Twitter at @AWTaylor83.