How can press officers help improve public trust in medical evidence?

17th January 2018

In November, Stempra ran an event in conjunction with and hosted at the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) on the findings and recommendations the AMS report on report on enhancing the use of scientific evidence to judge the potential benefits and harms of medicines. Among the report’s many recommendations aimed at different sectors of the science community, a few had been specifically aimed at press officers to lead on in improving the communication of evidence. These recommendations were not just aimed at Stempra, but also other organisations like the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Science Media Centre (SMC). Representatives from each organisation plus from the AMS sat on a panel to discuss the recommendations and what their organisations had done towards enacting them, before going out to the room for feedback and discussion from attendees. Chairing the session was Rob Dawson.

Recommendations from the AMS report:

a. The Science Media Centre works to develop criteria for and implement a ‘traffic light’ system for press releases of medical research that grade both the relevance of the research to clinical application and the robustness of the study. We also recommend that the Science Media Centre develops a series of workshops for news editors, subeditors and non-specialist journalists to enhance their understanding and reporting of the scientific process.

b. Stempra develops a code of practice for press officers to encourage best practice. Organisations that become a signatory to these principles could be authorised to use a hallmark to provide a clear signal that best practice guidelines for accuracy are promoted within the organisation, thereby increasing the credibility of the press release.

c. Funders develop a code of practice for their grant awardees around how to describe the science that they fund in the media. This approach received support from the Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC). We therefore recommend that MRC leads on coordinating the development of this code of practice with the other major UK funders.

d. Universities and research institutions play a greater role in ensuring that the research they host is portrayed accurately in the media. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE, relevant functions expected to be assumed by Research England in the future) and its counterparts in the devolved nations should incentivise them to do so by requiring that the robustness of the approaches they adopted forms part of the institutional environment statement submitted to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), in addition to the reproducibility and ‘intelligent openness’ efforts described in Recommendations 3 and 5 respectively.

First up was Claire Bithell, Head of Communications at the AMS, who outlined the scope of the report and what it had found in terms of how well the public understood medical evidence (answer: not very well!) She explained that it was vitally important that everyone- funders, scientists, policy makers, and comms experts- worked to do their part in improving the situation, and the fact that press officers had some of their own recommendations was a great recognition of the important role the sector plays in responsibly communicating scientific evidence.

Stempra Chair Claire Hastings spoke next, and outlined what Stempra could realistically work on, such as including an explicit section on best practice within the press officers’ guide, while also highlighting that as a voluntary organisation there were limits to how many resources could be devoted to some of the other recommendations such as the development of a code of practice for science press officers to sign up to. The suggestion was made that a working group of the Stempra committee, Stempra members, and other science PR professionals could be formed to explore this. Several attendees were keen on this idea and put themselves forward to help.

Next, Ed Sykes from the SMC explained how the proposed ‘traffic light system’ had progressed to a ‘labelling system’ that could be added to the top of press releases and used as a simple and quick indicator of what sort of evidence the press release was talking about. The labels would just be a couple of words and would denote whether the study was peer-reviewed or not, what sort of study it was (e.g. lab study, randomised controlled trial, observational study) or if it wasn’t at all (e.g. an opinion piece), and if it was a piece of research what level of organism it had taken place in (e.g. cells, animals, or humans). These labels were envisioned as a tool to help press officers push back against and challenge scientists who are over-egging their work, give them the confidence to ask pointed questions about what a study had found (e.g. ‘can it actually show causality if the label says it’s an observational study?’), and as a prompt to make this vital information easy to find in the release. There was quite a high level of interest in the labelling system and the SMC were keen to take the next step of piloting the system with science press officers within their own organisations. If the pilot is a success then the SMC will hand the refined labelling system back to the AMS to implement more fully.

Finally, Carmel Turner, Chief Press Officer at the MRC, discussed the recommendation for funders which was proving rather challenging to progress with. She was interested in input from the audience but also wanted to emphasise that all of these activities and initiatives should be complementary to each other to avoid confusion or redundancy. It was agreed that collaboration and support within the science press officer community was crucial.

The discussion also covered whether press officers needed more confidence when it came to challenging scientists and senior people at their organisations about the quality of evidence and how to communicated it responsibly, something that Stempra is very keen to support through the training day, skills and advice-based events, and the press officers’ guide.

Overall, the event was a great success with a good turnout, and it will be very interesting to see what developments come out of the AMS recommendations- watch this space!

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