Curbing exaggerated reporting

Ella Rhodes on a new study into how mainstream media report scientific findings.

A new paper has revealed that many of the exaggerations and distortions contained in mainstream media reports of scientific findings often come from university press releases themselves, rather than directly from science journalists. The article, published in the BMJ, looked at 462 press releases from 20 leading universities in the UK alongside the original peer-reviewed research papers and resulting news stories.

The authors, led by Professor Petroc Sumner (Cardiff University), used the following outcome measures; whether any of the stories, press releases or papers advised readers to change their behaviour, contained causal statements drawn from correlational research, and inference to humans from animal research beyond that stated in the associated academic papers. Among the press releases they found 40 per cent contained exaggerated advice, 33 per cent contained exaggerated causal claims and 36 per cent contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research.

When the press releases contained this exaggeration, it was reflected in the news stories 58 per cent, 81 per cent and 86 per cent respectively; while if the press releases contained no exaggeration, 17 per cent 18 per cent and 10 per cent of the news stories added in each of the three exaggerations respectively. This research sparked much debate with many specialist science news journalists pointing out that reporters are responsible for fact-checking even if press releases do contain exaggerated claims.

Ed Yong, a science writer who has a blog with National Geographic, said on Twitter: ‘Blame is not a zero-sum game. If exaggerations or inaccuracies end up in science/health reporting, then the journalist should always take 100% of the blame, even if the errors originated with scientists or press releases. Errors can arise anywhere, they are meant to end with us.’

Science journalist and research fellow Ben Goldacre wrote an accompanying article about the prevention of bad reporting on health research. He discussed the quantitative research already done on the misrepresentation of medical research in mainstream media. He pointed to the HealthNewsReview website in the United States, which gives an ongoing critical appraisal media coverage of treatments and tests. He said: ‘A published summary of its first 500 appraisals found that most news articles failed to satisfactorily discuss the quality of the evidence or to quantify the absolute magnitude of benefits and harms… In terms of story selection, evidence suggests that the media are more inclined to report exceptional causes of death; that bad news generates more coverage than good news and that observational studies are more likely to be covered than trials (perhaps because observational research more often reflects the kinds of lifestyle choices that patients can make themselves).’

Goldacre suggests that press releases should have named authors, including both the press officers involved and the academics from the original paper, adding: ‘This would create professional reputational consequences for misrepresenting scientific findings in a press release, which would parallel the risks around misrepresenting science in an academic paper.’

He also suggests that in terms of transparency, press releases are often more impactful than the research paper itself, but are often only sent privately to journalists and are rarely linked from academic papers. He said that releases should be treated as a part of the scientific publication, being linked to the paper, referenced from the academic paper that is being promoted, and presented in full view of peers.

He makes the final point that feedback in these cases would require a simple extension of current norms in academia. He said: ‘Researchers who exaggerate in an academic paper are publicly corrected – and held to account – in commentaries and letters to the publishing journal, through the process of post-publication peer review. This could be extended. Press releases are a key part of the publication of the science: journals should reflect this and publish commentary and letters about misrepresentations in the press release, just as they publish commentary on the academic paper itself. Collectively this would produce an information trail and accountability among peers and the public.’

The authors point out in their discussion that the result of their research shouldn’t be seen to be shifting blame from journalists onto non-journalists working in higher education press offices. They point out that most press releases are written collaboratively by scientists and press officers and therefore much of the responsibility for exaggeration should lie with scientific authors in these cases. They continue: ‘At the other end of the chain, journalists have a continuing responsibility to cross check their sources even if their working conditions make that increasingly difficult. The blame – if it can be meaningfully apportioned – lies mainly with the increasing culture of university competition and self promotion, interacting with the increasing pressures on journalists to do more with less time.’

The authors conclude that the academic community can make a large difference to the quality of health-related news stories and that appropriate claims are a good starting point.

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