The perils of Science by press release: ‘overly exaggerated presentation of research findings’

From the London School of Economics and Political Science: The growth of the science PR industry has resulted in an overly exaggerated presentation of research findings.
Science journalism is not immune to the budget crisis facing newsrooms more widely. With smaller staffs and tighter budgets, more science reporting is being done through press releases, many of which tend to exaggerate original research. Alasdair Taylor highlights some current research on the communication of research findings. Even in the BBC up to 75% of science stories were sourced directly from press releases. But blogging also opens up the potential for the democratisation of science through online debates. 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% 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%) 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.

This post covers some of the discussions from the first day of the Circling the Square conference, hosted by the University of Nottingham’s Science and Technology Studies research group. Follow on twitter through #circlesq.

This piece originally appeared on Alasdair Taylor’s personal blog and is reposted with the author’s permission.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License unless otherwise stated.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  Source: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/06/03/the-perils-of-the-press-release/

About the Author

Alasdair Taylor currently works at the University of Nottingham, creating academic-industrial links around research into sustainable technologies.

h/t to Matti H. Virtanen

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28 thoughts on “The perils of Science by press release: ‘overly exaggerated presentation of research findings’

  1. Besides the hype in press releases there is the problem of deadlines, no outlet can afford to be a day late with news, so journalists have little time to do more than copy and paste, even if they had the necessary knowledge to do more than that.

    Ideally there would be a news embargo for (say) 1 week, which would allow journalists to do some research and checking, and to write “good” science news.

    Press releases should also be improved, but how? Maybe we taxpayers should exert our rights and hold to account press releases from govt agencies and universities.

  2. “Overly exaggerated” is redundant, unless they mean to imply there is a proper degree of exaggeration. Stop exaggeration inflation!

  3. Government Public Relations has become a self-interested, self-promoting, white washing, lipsticking, agenda driving, truth avoiding, manipulating, election meddling, mission creeping,
    crony accommodating, excuse making, swindle serving vanquishing of integrity.
    A case could be made that the width and depth of no boundaries, unconstrained lying now expands at a pace far greater than any efforts to reel it in.
    That the cat is out of the bag, Pandora’s box is wide open and that it is too late to fix.
    Or everything is swell and we just need a little time?

  4. It’s not just perils of science by press release but perils of science ‘journalists’ not checking their facts.

    Independent – 27 June 2008
    By Steve Connor , Science Editor
    Exclusive: Scientists warn that there may be no ice at North Pole this summer
    It seems unthinkable, but for the first time in human history, ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole this year.

    FAIL!
    References (ice free central Arctic during the last 11,000 years).

    North pole ice free no that long ago either.

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/08/22/open-water-at-the-north-pole-2/

    Read about polynyas too.

  5. Up to 75% of BBC science coverage is press release-driven hype? I am shocked. Surely it is at least 97%, perhaps even worse than that….more than 110% according to a study that I have just made up.

    At least, thank god, we have the Guardian Science blogs to provide some much needed balance.

  6. 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.

    Then when challenged the scientists often come back and say crap like “our paper didn’t claim that” knowing full well they wanted hype for the paper.

  7. Having been involved in a few newsworthy incidents in my lifetime, I’m not sure that a whole lot has changed. The reporting 30 years ago was superficial, inaccurate and biased. I read the articles, wondering if they were even about the same incident. I also recall one media outlet making a major mistake, and having it repeated by other media outlets several times over the next few weeks even though the first outlet had published a retraction weeks prior (on the inside back page in small print of course). I honestly don’t see current reporting as being any worse.

    Of course it may feel worse for no other reason that we now live an an era where we can cross check facts easily, quickly, and at little expense. So anything that we are interested enough in to get the details for ourselves inevitably exposes the weakness of reporting that we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed at all.

    That said, I think there are in fact two changes that are relevant. As the article above alludes to, the simple pace of society has picked up. We are inundated with information, it floods us from so many sources that we cannot deal with it except by filtering much of it out. We tend to filter out info that runs contrary to our world view, and reporters are no different.

    The other major change though is to the science itself. Most fundamental research these days is incremental. “Breakthrough” research on the level of say, an Einstein Theory of Relativity just isn’t happening anymore. At the same time though, we have a much more educated population, and many times as many institutions vying for funding. With the increments in knowledge becoming smaller and smaller, at the same time that the number of researchers and institutions investigating them increasing, it is little wonder that they are making a bigger and bigger deal out of smaller and smaller issues in an attempt to stick out of the crowd just enough to garner some attention and funding.

  8. “All the panellists agreed the internet and blogging had revolutionised science communication.”

    I agree, and would add further that attempting to produce artificial thought leaders on blogs has not and will not work. It will never get the genuine interest and traffic that a site like WUWT and tb’s have.

  9. “Churnalism” is standard. Very few scientists will try to correct this.

    The churnalists ( hi there, geographer and BBC Chief Scientific Correspondent David Shukman! ) are worthless.

    So too are the scientists.

  10. Who are writing the PR pieces? It is likely a copywriter generalist from a business or advertising background who has no knowledge of the research but is an expert at making the University or other institution look good, and knows how to use connections to get it published. That’s what PR specialists are and what they do, and so the fact that the PR pieces are full of fluff and lack depth should shock no one.

    The article was very interesting however, and explains much of what is wrong with the information that we read in the press.

    The only correction that is possible for this mess is that the lazy news outlets should have to disclose which information they sourced from a press release, and who wrote the press release. You might often see something like “PR Wire” listed at the beginning of the article which is basically the same thing as the Associated Press is for news–a clearing house where PR releases are posted for everyone to see and use. Articles that come from PR Wire or similar sources should attribute that source and the author and affiliations of the PR Wire piece should be disclosed.

  11. “With smaller staffs and tighter budgets, more science reporting is being done through press releases, many of which tend to exaggerate original research”

    It has been my personal experience in dealing with the media , that it is not the budget that force the news outlets to report climate science in a biased, exaggerated or over positive way by minimizing any known uncertainties or leaving out vital “other side” facts . It seems to be a deliberate PR policy of most liberally oriented news outlets to only present the anthropogenic version of climate science or have it dominate the news,. Whether it is an exaggeration or even wrong , they just repeat the original press release . They ignore any letters and fail to print any articles that point out clear mistakes in the original press release or in anthropogenic global warming science generally . Yet they will print every silly story about the latest climate event that is blamed on global warming . Hence much of the main stream media are no longer true news outlets but are outlets or advocates for certain political or special interest groups . They cannot be trusted for complete or reliable news about climate science Thank goodness there at least an internet and social media

  12. “Even in the BBC up to 75% of science stories were sourced directly from press releases. ”

    I ‘m not sure it would improve the quality if they didn’t.

  13. As much to the point are abstracts which aren’t supported by the research. We see this constantly with AGW nonsense papers. But since very few journalists read beyond the abstract (if they even GET that far), we end up with copy that is way out there.

  14. I have been in the middle of research committees. They run the show: who gets grants, what research gets through to an article, who gets published, when they get published, who goes on the circuit to present the research, and who gets credit. It is a choreographed dance beginning to end. All designed to get more money. Money is the root evil of science. Plain and simple. I hated it.

    Loved the research. Loved finding new things. Loved replicating old research. But hated the dog eat dog world. What you found in the lab, or whether or not you, the one who found it, got credit, no matter how great or small, was wayyyyy down the list. It was whether or not money was at the end of it and the lab entities (aka head researchers) could profit by way of prestige and money. The entire short-lived experience I had disgusted me.

  15. It all comes down to the fact the press releases are promotional first, and explanatory second. The objective is to get attention, not explore a subject. Until the public recognizes and discounts the hype, there is no incentive for the journalism industry to change and become more truthful.

  16. I don’t know how to stop the gravy train incentive. Human greed and an enlarged sense of power that leads to all manner of power drunkenness is difficult to stop. Why? To stop the gravy from flowing, IE the most draconian measures, leaves us in the dark ages. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t fund research.

  17. Pamela Gray says:
    June 8, 2014 at 6:29 pm
    I don’t know how to stop the gravy train incentive. Human greed and an enlarged sense of power that leads to all manner of power drunkenness is difficult to stop. Why? To stop the gravy from flowing, IE the most draconian measures, leaves us in the dark ages. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t fund research.
    ********************************************************************************************************
    How about instituting ethics and firing those that are found to lie and exaggerate? Maybe if heads starting rolling the industry would change a little? (I know, I know…unicorn farts.)

  18. “As a scientist, I am passionate that science will continue to offer transformative technologies and discoveries that will benefit society in the future. ”

    Since I am a degreed (BS, MS and Ph.D.) scientist (Geophysicist) with many publications I can say that I for one am NOT passionate about science, transformative technologies (whatever the heck they are or might be in some poor psychotic fools mind) or discovery that will benefit society !

    I think I should stop here before the explicative and pejorative words come gushing forth.

    Good night. ;-)

    [Thank you for your efforts, and your reply here. .mod]

  19. You can actually reach the same conclusion about ‘research by peer-reviewed journal publication’.

    The analysis you have to do is this:

    1. What does the title say?
    2. What does the abstract say?
    3. What does the discussion say?

    That tells you the subliminal messages being sent. It tells you nothing about the data being presented.

    Then you look at the data and you ask one simple question: ‘does this data prove, back up or support the subliminal messages?’

    Of course, it would be better to read the experimental data first, then interpret it, just as the scientists who did the experiments should have done.

    But you can’t do that, because you have to find the article amidst a sea of other ones, quite possibly using a literature searching algorithm which uses ‘key words’.

    Just remember: Nature is in competition with Science, which is in competition with Geophysical Research Letters etc etc. Same in medical research: Nature vs Cell vs Science vs JBC vs J. Mol. Biol. vs BBRC etc etc. To publish, you have to say something ‘radical’, ‘far out’, ‘novel’, ‘game changing’ etc etc. You have to sleep with Tom Cruise, not love your wife every day for 5 years, after all. Because Tom Cruise is box office, whereas the nitty gritty of being a loving husband isn’t. How sexy is getting the children out of bed every morning, driving them to school every day, making sure they are safe on the beach on holiday, teaching them how to polish their shoes, iron a shirt, cook pasta, eh??

    Science reputations are forged in the competitive world of publication ratings wars.

    Ask yourself this: how many papers in 1998 had the title ‘gene therapy’ in them and how many were actually ‘we’ve gone a very small way to create a delivery vehicle which may or may not succeed in clinical trials in about ten years time’?? Most, if truth be told. Doesn’t mean gene therapy isn’t a great concept and that successful therapies aren’t life changing. But the timescale for achieving what the title emblazoned may be a whole generation i.e. most of a scientist’s entire career in research.

    It’s all OK if you understand how the game works and can read between the lines.

    Sadly, most of the media can’t. Nor can most of the politicians. And nor can a significant minority of technology investors.

  20. Science by press release used to be limited to occasional article in the New York Times on magnetic monopoles and free energy from the use of catalysts but it went big with the “Cold Fusion” boondoggle.

    That is the first end run around proper science procedure I remember.

    We seem to have returned to the age of piltdown man, where sensationalism represented science.

  21. Gaiantologist says:
    June 8, 2014 at 12:11 pm
    “Overly exaggerated” is redundant, unless they mean to imply there is a proper degree of exaggeration. Stop exaggeration inflation!
    ——————————–
    I gotta agree with you there.
    It’s time to stop the tons and tons of all of the excessive over exaggeration.
    cn

  22. Often, it’s not the subject of an article but what it reveals by its very coming into being that I find interesting. In this case, it is that there are still a few (parts of) academic institutions and individuals in England that express free thought that goes against the grain. It appeared to be already game over for the country that invented freedom and real democracy (the Greeks gave it to elites who already had it anyway). I highly recommend Mark Steyn’s best seller ”After America

    I have been pondering an interesting social phenomenon in light of the blogs that have sprung up to counter the pervasive autocratic politicized ‘status quo’ in science and clearly in other topics, bolstered by a majority of citizens who go along and the numbers of them that hoist up the banners. Given that nearly all have the same ‘progressive’ agenda driven education to pre-dispose them, it is clear and heartening that there is a significant and possibly relatively constant percentage of individuals who come through the conditioning non compromised. Now here is a premium topic for a sociology PhD study that alas, we are not likely to see. No discipline has been more thoroughly co-opted and psychology would appear to be pretty much gone, too.

  23. I call the subject “Press Release Science”, in opposition to actual science. It is similar too, but separate from “Popular Science” — the type of stories famously published in a magazine of the same name. Neither of these types of science communication inform us of the actual science done or its true results.

    Thus my recommendation to students and the interested public to use such reports ONLY to become aware that “something” has been done and follow the links to read the actual journal paper — carefully avoiding forming any opinion or accepting any data from the “Press Release Science” or “Popular Science” report.

    I have many times emailed scientists and asked them “Did you really say ‘such-and-so’, as quoted in your University’s press release?” 90% of the time, the answer has been along the lines of : “Well, actually no, I’m not quite sure how they arrived at that quote. I would have said something very different.”

  24. Speaking of “hype and exaggeration”, you may like the following sequence of exaggeration taken from http://www.bishop-hill.net/blog/2014/6/6/lwec-report-card-a-microcosm-of-global-warming-exaggeration.html .

    Here is the step by step recipe to exaggerate spring warming in Britain.

    1. Hide behind peer review delays to avoid noting the 1994-2013 CET mean temperature spring trend of -0.003+/-0.034°C per annum.
    2. Concentrating on 1994-2006 then, consider March-May CET means but reject them because the 0.49°C OLS trend over 12 years is not statistically significant.
    3. Instead, use April-July (breeding season) as this gives 0.91°C over 12 years, which is statistically significant.
    4. Better still, rather than using freely available CET series, use the data from Davey et al, which give 1.11°C over 12 years.
    5. But why use a new fangled method like OLS when simply drawing a straight line through the end points gives 1.39°C? Yes, that value should keep the eco-troops happy, and the great British public surely won’t notice that this is not usually the way that science is done.

    Voila!

    Rich.

  25. Rich. The cult of science – scientism. And this quackademic blames the mythical ‘PR’ industry…try blaming the quacks including yourself. Tulips to teachers. 20 ppm trace chemical causes cold and warm weather. Endless b.s. from tax funded studies. Blatant fraud and lies. Quackademia and the Quackitists have degraded science to the level occupied previously by lawyers, insurance salesmen, and chiropractors.

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