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Hype in science news: five reflections on an important BMJ paper

10 Dec, 2014
mark-henderson from blog

Mark Henderson

Today Chris Chambers and colleagues at the University of Cardiff published their research into the association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases from 20 Russell Group universities in the UK. Here, Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and former Science Editor of The Times newspaper, sets out his personal reflections on this research. We will also be revisiting this issue on the Wellcome Trust blog as the debate continues…

Today’s BMJ paper by Chris Chambers, Petroc Sumner and colleagues, revealing that exaggeration in medical research reporting can often be traced back to inflated claims in press releases, is not exactly news. The suggestion that hyped journalism often reflects hyped media relations confirms an effect that has long been recognised by journalists and press officers alike.

The study is nonetheless important and timely, providing the first firm data on the extent of hype in biomedical science press releases. I have some minor quibbles over the design of the study – I would question, for example, whether all instances in which advice is offered on the back of certain findings, or in which the human disease context of animal research is explained, should really count as exaggeration, though many of them undoubtedly do.

But overall, this is an excellent contribution to our understanding of how science is communicated to the wider world, which has been executed about as sensitively as can reasonably be expected. It should be welcomed as a prompt for reflection by all those who contribute to the communication of science through the media, including not only press officers, but journalists, editors and scientists as well.

I’ve worked on both sides of this issue – I was Science Editor of The Times for many years, and for the past three I’ve been Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, where my responsibilities include media relations. Here are five reflections on the issue that draw on both experiences.

1. It’s important to filter

In my career as a science journalist, I saw one of my most important roles as that of bullshit filter. It was my job not only to ensure that The Times reported on the most interesting and important scientific stories, but also that we avoided the bad ones. I judged myself as much by what I kept out of the paper as by what I got into it. This included, almost every day, checking press releases that made inflated claims against the original research (and/or interviews with scientists), and either correcting these claims in my own copy or rejecting the story altogether as a result.

I see the function of the good press officer as essentially similar. Yes, the job is about ensuring that important and newsworthy activities that your institution is engaged in get the media coverage you think they deserve. But it is also about ensuring that these stories are explained fairly and reasonably – and that includes resisting any temptation to exaggerate or hype, and overruling colleagues who want to do so. A press release that prompts blanket coverage is NOT a success if that coverage is misleading, over-inflated or wrong.

2. Make it as simple as possible, not simpler

As Einstein is purported to have said (it is actually a paraphrase), everything should always be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. So it is with press releases. A good press release translates science that is often communicated in opaque, technical language that is difficult for the generalist reporter (and even science reporters are generalists compared to researchers) to understand, into clear terms that communicate its essence and key points. It’s important to make press releases relevant and understandable, but not at the expense of accuracy. It’s not acceptable to hype or exaggerate – and the sharper reporters will quite properly pick you up on it if you do.

So the press officer who writes a hyped release is certainly at fault. But it’s important to recognise that some press officers – who are often junior figures within an institution – are not always fully responsible for the content they produce. Just as journalists are increasingly under pressure to deliver clicks and eyeballs, so press officers are sometimes under pressure to deliver coverage – often any coverage. Evaluation metrics that count media mentions as the principal measure of success, and comms managers who see any coverage as good coverage, may well be part of the problem here. If we care about avoiding hype, we should be careful not to incentivise it.

3. Scientists must take responsibility too

Press releases that exaggerate aren’t always the fault of press officers. Scientists often deserve their share of responsibility as well. Some – though by no means all – are often only too keen to make inflated or extrapolated claims in pursuit of a little credit or media limelight. The good press officer should always push back against claims that appear to go beyond the evidence, and many do – I certainly encourage my team to do so. But we do have to recognise that it is not always easy or possible for the press officer, who will more often than not be junior to the researcher they are helping, to challenge successfully, if at all. If institutions want to take on PR hype, they need to empower their press offices to say no.

Equally culpable are scientists who abet hype through sins of omission, not commission. These are the ones who fail to engage with their press officers (or indeed journalists), and either pay lip service to checking press releases or ignore them altogether. Good press officers do their best to reflect research accurately, but they are never as specialist as study authors and they sometimes make mistakes. There is also a fine line between setting context that makes a press release relevant and reportable, and extrapolating beyond findings to create hype. The press officer needs active collaboration from the scientist to make this work.

4. Good judgement is essential

Then there’s the role of the journalist. Reporters rightly complain that scientists and press officers sometimes hype and exaggerate research, or suggest inferences that are thinly supported by the available data – that this happens is borne out by this study. But this is NEVER an acceptable excuse for simply repeating a poorly founded claim.

The job of a journalist is not blindly to report every piece of information put to them. It is important to check facts out, to sieve and filter information, to add any context that might be necessary to aid the reader’s understanding, and, in the end, to make choices about what to cover and what to leave well alone. Yes, there are time pressures. Yes, the industry increasingly demands volume over thoroughness. Yes, some hyped stories look incredibly appetising. But none of this excuses a failure to exercise good judgement.

Journalists who blame poor or misleading press releases for their own poor or misleading reports are rather like athletes who blame positive drug tests on contaminated supplements. They should take better care.

5. We’re all under pressure

Journalists should take a kind of strict liability for what they write. But just as some press officers sometimes deserve sympathy because of their institutional context, so do some reporters. The media often behaves as a pack animal, and it can be incredibly difficult for a reporter, seeing their peers and colleagues blindly swallowing the contents of a sensational but hyped press release, to plough a lone furrow in rejecting it.

Many times have I told a news editor that a certain story isn’t worth following up, or that the sensational line taken by another paper isn’t true, to be told in return: “but it was in the press release.” This illustrates one of the really pernicious things about hyped media relations – it undermines and disempowers responsible journalists, especially those who struggle to stand up to their editors. It gives cover to journalists, and there are plenty of them, who are looking for an excuse to go with the sensational but misleading line. And it makes the job of the responsible reporter immeasurably harder. That’s one of the main reasons this paper matters.

The research paper and all associated data are free to download.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg Jones permalink
    11 Dec, 2014 10:18 am

    When a genuinely exaggerated story appears in the news, it’s the combined result of failings at every stage in the process. The researchers, press offices and journalists all have a responsibility to ensure accurate communication of the story and, in an ideal world, none should need to act as a filter.

  2. Lawrence McGinty permalink
    11 Dec, 2014 10:53 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with the five points that Mark makes here. But after 30 years as health and science editor at ITV News, and now chair of the Medical Journalists Association, I have to say, it’s getting worse.
    First because journalists have less time to do the kind of critical appraisal that Mark describes – they write more stories per day and often just don’t have time to go back to the original paper. I tried hard to follow my own rule never to report on research without seeing the paper first. But it got harder and harder.
    One important reason for that is the growth of “news” outlets. 24-hour TV and radio news, blogs, Twitter, and so on. It was not unusual to have a conversation with a news editor that started with me saying “this story is crap science”, only to be told, “Maybe, but its everywhere”. My response that we shouldn’t cover a story just because everyone else was covering it was greeted with the show-stopper: ” but it’s a talking point”.
    Mark doesn’t fall into the trap of sharing the blame between scientists, PRs and hacks and that’s good, because as Karl Marx said, the point is to change it.
    I think there’s a role here for journals. The BMJ already has a formalised “box” in papers where researchers have to assess factors like “What’s new in this paper” and what are the implications for clinical practice. Other journals could do the same. And, here’s the new idea, as part of the agreement to publish, any press release based on the paper should have to include that information, or at least a link to it.

  3. 11 Dec, 2014 5:34 pm

    Thanks for this really insightful and useful post, Mark. I was involved with the BMJ paper and I agree with everything you’ve said here. The way that some of the conversation about the paper has turned into a blame game is not particularly helpful, in my opinion. As you suggest, journalists have little to celebrate in our findings.
    Nobody comes out of this looking particularly great, in fact, and we all (scientists, journalists, and press officers) need to up our game. That’s not to say that this will be easy. The economic and institutional constraints which are probably a big cause of this problem (in newsrooms and Universities) are significant and will be difficult to shift.
    I have an inkling they might be somewhat easier to shift in Universities than in some newsrooms. I think the pressures and practices outlined so well by Lawrence in his comment are systemic and pretty intractable even if they differ in intensity between news outlets (I’ve written about this a bit here:
    It may be the case that Universities are more open to pressure/persuasion to reform their comms practices than, say, many popular newspapers or news websites (where churnalism and associated practices have arguably become ingrained into the business model).
    The next step for us as researchers on the InSciOut project will be to conduct a more in-depth study which we hope will allow us to prove the existence of this problem beyond correlation. My own focus will also be on qualitative research with scientists and University science communicators aimed at understanding and explaining the (no doubt multiple and overlapping) reasons why we seem to be hyping our research in this way.
    It’s been great to see so many suggestions about what to do about this problem (from Ben Goldacre, from Lawrence, above, and others). I like the sound of quite a few of them, personally. But I’m going to wait and see what the next phase of research finds before jumping in with my own thoughts on how to best address this.

  4. Brian Deer permalink
    11 Dec, 2014 11:00 pm

    Happy never to have written a story from a press release.

  5. Robert Matthews permalink
    12 Dec, 2014 12:13 pm

    It’s always fascinating to hear the views of someone who has been on different sides of a debate, as Mark has. I was particularly intrigued by how he felt able to exercise veto over dodgy science stories while he was on The Times.

    When I was there back in the 1980s, it was made perfectly plain to me that I’d been hired solely to find and write up stories. As such, the test of whether a story should be written up was not (say) that the 95% CI of an RCT was sufficiently tight to constitute adequate evidential weight but “Will the Daily Mail run this tomorrow?”.

    Sometimes I did exercise judgement, but it was always scary and once almost got me fired for (quote) “lacking journalistic nous”.

    Happily, I no longer have to fret about such things. But when I give courses to journalists (most recently as part of the Royal Statistical Society’s Science in the Media training programme) I feel duty-bound to address the problem of “getting the news desk off your back”.

    My advice is to extract the (inevitable) caveats about the claim/study from the researchers, and making sure these are given prominence in the final story. It’s good to see this happening, via phrases such as “The scientists stress that the results are based on animal research, and so may not be confirmed in human studies, but (fill in Daily Mail angle here)”

    This allows reporters to fulfil the terms of their employment, and shifts the decision about spiking it altogether to their news editors (whose pay-packets can absorb the kicking they’ll get if they make a bad call).

  6. 14 Dec, 2014 3:58 pm

    Hard to disagree with anything said here. So I will just throw in a thought on Mark’s suggestions that ” Some – though by no means all [researchers] – are often only too keen to make inflated or extrapolated claims in pursuit of a little credit or media limelight.

    Oh so true. But why do they play this game? Is it really just in pursuit of credit or media limelight?

    Could it be that the media coverage helps them to demonstrate the “impact” that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) now demands? (Media coverage can be one indicator of impact.) Is the exaggerated claim a way of beefing up the next grant submission?

    It would be interesting to know how much, if at all, the researchers fight off the exaggerated claims that appeared in press releases. After all, most scientists balk at the “breakthrough” word – genuine breakthroughs are often apparent many years after the event – and yet this word appears all too regularly in press releases that describe research that is little more than stamp collecting, adding to an existing body of knowledge.

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