Understanding the hype in health news

12th December 2014

By Jess Devonport

In October, Petroc Sumner from the InSciOut group at Cardiff University joined Stempra to discuss their research on where hype in science and health news comes from. At that point the study was yet to be published and we were unable to disclose the findings in our event report, we were told to watch this space.

That space has now been filled with “The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study“, published on Wednesday, with an accompanying editorial by Ben Goldacre. With results like theirs, indicating that exaggeration in health news stories is already present in the press release, it would be easy to point fingers and try to lay blame. But as Petroc and colleagues acknowledged in their blog for the Guardian, errors and hype can creep in at any point between peer-review and press coverage.

There followed some interesting and constructive responses to the research. Despite questions over the design of the study, it was generally agreed that the research provided a useful and timely insight into the way science is communicated in the media, and highlights the shared responsibility between researchers, press officers, and journalists to maintain accuracy.

Dr Edward Sykes, Chair of Stempra said:

“In this observational study researchers reviewed more than 400 health-related press releases issued by 20 leading UK universities during 2011. They assessed whether the releases contained exaggerated advice to change behaviour, used causal statements when the research just showed correlation or inferred impacts on humans when the studies were done in animals. 40% of the press releases were found to be exaggerated, 33% had causal statements when they should have been correlation and 36% described relevance to humans when the data was limited to animals. This misinformation was carried over into the news articles 51%, 81% and 86% of the time respectively.

“There are caveats and limitations to this study, including that this research is itself only a correlation and does not show causation. Nor can we say what role journal press releases played or whether these findings would be true across all science disciplines.

“Despite the limitations, this paper is a first step in some much-needed research providing evidence into how science misreporting occurs and these findings should be a strong wake-up call to a scientific community that frequently laments the quality of scientific reporting in the media. Research into health issues is one area where we cannot afford to be slack.

“Universities are in competition for students, scientists are in competition for grant funding and press officers are under extreme pressure to provide the best media coverage – it is what they are paid to do. But the best media coverage does not necessarily mean the most. We science press officers should realise the very real responsibility we have – science is a special case. Press officers not only need to know how the media works and how to best support their institution, but they should also be able to read a scientific paper, understand some basic statistics and, most importantly, have the knowledge to feel confident in their ability to push back on scientists keen to publish their results, journal editors keen to sell subscriptions and senior management who want their institution’s name to get great and greater reach.

“This research is not just a warning to press officers, but also to scientists who sign off on these press releases. Scientists, press officers and institutions all need to be aware that there is a shared responsibility for what appears on our front pages and what we cannot do is simply blame journalists, who do not always have the time – or the inclination – to check the facts.”

Mark Henderson provided an insightful contribution to the discussion with five reflections on the responsibilities of journalists and press officers alike, highlighting the important role of the press officer in translating often dense and technical language of the research paper into something that’s interesting and accessible for the journalist. Similarly, Fiona Fox commented that the research shows the influence press officers have in shaping how science and health news is reported.

The InSciOut group have a follow-up study in the works, taking in a more in-depth look at why and how things might go awry in the process from paper, to press release, to media coverage. But what can we do now? What can we take away from this in order to improve our practices, and support each other as press officers? As press officers we need to feel empowered to withstand the pressure to gain media coverage, and to be able to question claims made in the research papers.


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