University Press Releases Create Hype
A newly published study in the BMJ found that health science press releases are a major source of hype and sensationalism in reporting about the science.
The authors reviewed “Press releases (n=462) on biomedical and health related science issued by 20 leading UK universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and news stories (n=668).” They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated health advice, 33% overemphasized the causal connection, and 36% exaggerated the ability to extrapolate animal and cell data to humans.
These are the very problems with science news reporting that we often point out and criticize. Preliminary or small studies are presented as if their results are reliable or definitive. Also, correlations are presented as if they point definitively to a specific cause and effect. The need for follow up research to confirm the results or explore the causal relationship is often overlooked, giving the wrong impression about the implications of the research to the public.
Further, in order to make the results of the research seem more exciting, any possible implication for human health is presented as if it is a conclusion of the study. Therefore, any study involving viruses or the immune system, “may cure the common cold.” Any study of cell physiology or metabolism, “may lead to a cure cancer.” Brain studies always seem to have implications for Alzheimer’s disease.
The news reporting will often focus on or emphasize such implications, even when they were not the focus of the research, which may have simply involved cells in culture, or animal studies. Such overhyped reporting can create a distorted view of the state of the science.
Further, the study found that:
When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in news when the press releases were not exaggerated.
None of this lets science journalists off the hook. Many news outlets reprint science press releases with little or no further investigation.
The solution is simple – university press offices need to be more responsible when crafting press releases, worrying less about grabbing headlines and more about accurately presenting the science. The authors also point out that scientists often approve the press release for their own research, and so they need to be better educated about the need for accurate press releases and take more of a role in ensuring their research is properly presented.
Nature, writing about the study, gives an example of a journal using a disclaimer in the press release to put research into perspective:
An August press release from a different BMJ journal contained this disclaimer: “This is an observational study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect.”
It’s actually good news that scientists and university press offices can have such an impact on the reporting of science news. Hopefully this story will prompt some much needed improvement in science reporting, beginning at the source.
Note – this was a retrospective observational study and so conclusions regarding cause and effect should be made with caution.