The science of press releases – can we have our cake and eat it?

4th November 2014

by Emma Knott, Kaizo PR

When it comes to drafting a cracking press release, a key challenge is the balancing act between accuracy and interest. As press officers, we all want to ensure we stay true to the science, yet at the same time we need to pique the interest of journalists, ensuring our release stands out from the crowd amongst the hundreds that hit their inbox on a daily basis.

Yet despite our best balancing efforts, ‘sexed up’ science still exists in the media. So who’s to blame? Scientists, press-officers, and journalists are motivated by overlapping and divergent interests. Scientists and universities face increasing pressure to achieve social impact, while reporters face ever higher workloads. This places a great importance on the role of the humble press release.

At the latest Stempra event we were joined by Dr. Petroc Sumner from Cardiff University, who discussed this issue in detail. His research group, InSciOut, are currently investigating the potential role of press releases in creating misleading reports of science in the press. They analysed press releases from Russell Group universities, alongside the original peer-reviewed journal articles and, in turn, the resulting media coverage. Their aim was to explore the extent to which press releases contained exaggerations, whether these transferred to coverage and whether exaggeration (or caveats) in releases were associated with higher or lower press uptake (note: the study is yet to be published, so we can not disclose the results just yet – watch this space!).

Now the InSciOut gang are embarking on an ambitious follow up study. In a large analysis of press releases, journal articles and news stories, they aim to examine how and why things might go wrong. For example, do certain phrases in press releases routinely mislead? And to what extent are readers sensitive to subtle differences between phrases that actually mean different things?

If you and your institution would like to get involved in this project, please get in touch with Petroc on: SumnerP@cardiff.ac.uk

 

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