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