Stempra’s best practice guide for health and biomedical research press releases

10th September 2018

A post by Dr Claire Hastings, The Institute of Cancer Research

At Stempra, it’s our goal to ensure everyone who works in science media and public relations has the requisite skills, knowledge, professional recognition and ethical guidance to successfully negotiate the balance between attracting public interest in research and retaining accuracy and balance.

This is especially important in the field of biomedical research, when research findings can have an emotional impact on the reader and influence conversations they might be having with their family, friends or their doctor.

A recent report published by the Academy of Medical Sciences found that only a third of the general public place trust in medical evidence. The report had implications for the whole sector – including the researchers who generate the evidence, policymakers who make decisions based on the evidence, and those who communicate about it.

In light of the report, the Stempra committee have produced an easy-to-use best practice guide specifically for biomedical press release to complement our more comprehensive  Stempra Guide to Being a Media Officer – cited in the report as a useful tool for press officers publicising medical research.

We have published our biomedical press release best practice on our website, below, and hope you find it useful.

If you’d like more details relating to a specific bullet point, we’d refer you to our guide, or please do get in touch using info@stempra.org.uk or you can ask for advice on the Stempra members’ mailing list. Stempra also run monthly events around the UK, including our flagship Press Officers’ Training Day in March each year, attended by around 100 science press officers. If you are not yet a Stempra member, you can find out more and sign up here.

A best practice guide for health and biomedical research press releases

Biomedical research press releases should: 

  • accurately reflect – and not overstate or ‘hype’ – the findings of the research, particularly in the title and top line of the press release. Only include the words ‘breakthrough’ or ‘cure’ if the researchers (and preferably third parties) are absolutely sure. Beware of raising false hope among patients

  • include research caveats and limitations of the study – for example the number of participants in a study, if there were factors researchers weren’t able to control for, or if some of the findings weren’t directly measured but done for example by survey

  • state if the study was done in cell lines, animal models (state which animal), human embryos or in people 

  • state clearly which type of study was undertaken. For example, if it’s a clinical trial, is it randomised, controlled, double blind, phase I, II or III? Is it an observational study? Or maybe it’s new research, a meta-analysis of previously published data, or a combination of both?

  • be explicit about whether the press release is about peer-reviewed evidence being published in a journal, a conference presentation of unpublished data, or an editorial or opinion piece e.g. “in an editorial opinion piece published in XXXX journal, Professor Jane Smith said…”

  • be clear about whether the reported finding is a correlation or causation. If it is just an association, avoid causal language such as “x increased the risk of y”

  • include, where available, absolute risk as well as relative risk. If it isn’t available, include some useful background risk information e.g. “in the general population, 1 in every 3,000 people get the disease”

  • avoid statistical concepts that are hard to interpret, such as odd ratios 

  • Include descriptions of context, including the weight of previous evidence, especially if what you are publicising is particularly controversial, surprising, or contradictory to previous thought

  • Be clear about whether you’re talking about the direct findings of the study or wider interpretation or extrapolation, especially if it involves health advice

  • be diligently checked for accuracy by the original researcher. It may also be prudent
    to consult a relevant senior academic in the organisation such as the Academic Dean, Medical Director, or Head of Division, for example if your press release is making bold claims or if the research has not yet been peer reviewed

  • provide a link to the original study if available. It is not always possible before publication with every journal – but you should have an embargoed copy of the study available to send to journalists who ask for it. Once published, a link should be provided on website and social media. Not everyone will be able to read the full text of all journal articles without a subscription, but they can at least see the abstract 

  • adopt the press release labelling system for medical research releases
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