Launching the labelling system for medical press releases

5th August 2018

by Alice Kay

You may remember that Stempra ran an event at the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) last November outlining the recommendations for press officers from the Academy’s extensive report on enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicine. One of the recommendations had been for the Science Media Centre (SMC) to investigate the development of a labelling system for medical and health press releases to help journalists tell at-a-glance what stage of research the new study is at.

Fast forward six months, and the finalised labelling system was ready to be introduced to science press offices across the UK. This event in June was an opportunity for the community to hear how the system had changed (or not), how journalists had reacted, what scientists thought of it, and how the system worked in practice. On the panel were Claire Bithell, Head of Communications at the AMS, Ed Sykes, Head of Mental Health & Neuroscience at the SMC, and Seil Collins, Head of Media & Communications at the Lancet, who had helped to trial the system. Fiona Lethbridge from the Stempra committee chaired the event and also filled in for Claire Bithell, who sadly had to pull out due to illness.

Fiona read out Claire’s slides and re-explained the background to the AMS report, the recommendations for press officers among the dozens of other recommendations, and how the labelling system came about. Then Ed went over the details of the labels, how they worked, what they meant, how they could be applied, and when not to use them, as well as the feedback received. He reported that science and health journalists had liked the system and thought it would be useful to them when skimming through press releases, though they agreed that the labels probably wouldn’t deter them from running a story!

Seil then spoke about using the labels on Lancet press releases and what her colleagues thought of the system. She reported that the response from her editors when asked whether the Lancet should adopt the system was “Why wouldn’t we? It’s a no brainer.” She wasn’t sure at first how useful the labels would be but she actually found that they made her think more carefully about methodology, while for some studies that made her more cautious when writing the press release in others cases the labels made her more confident to be robust about the conclusions of a study.

Lots of important points were raised during discussion, but everyone present was on board with adopting the labelling system – people thought that the labels would add a further layer of honesty and transparency to communicating science.

There were even some ideas on how to best roll it out to places such as conference organisations and pharma companies, and how to promote it to academics. There was also discussion about whether additional labels denoting funding should be added. Everyone agreed that this is something owned by community and it is up to us to develop and change as time goes on. The SMC will likely seek feedback on the system in about six months’ time and see what its impact has been and whether anything needs to be tweaked.

Fundamentally, this and the other AMS recommendations will hopefully further increase the quality of science communications and help brilliant science press officers to do their job even more brilliantly. The labelling system can be viewed here.

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