From Chris Chambers on Twitter (of Cardiff Univ.) come some very important points about press coverage of scientific results. I often make references here to misleading and inaccurate headlines and stories in the popular press – as a scientist, it’s hard to take, seeing research results mangled in the only venues that most people will hear about these things. But where does the blame lie?
Chambers himself went through the experience of seeing the work of his colleagues distorted in the British press a few years ago, and when it comes to the likes of the Daily Mail, all one can do is quote Hilaire Belloc: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist / Thank God, the British journalist / But seeing what the man will do / Unbribed, there is no reason to”. Chambers waded into the fight, as that Twitter thread linked above shows, and initially backed a proposal for scientists to be able to review the copy written about their results. Initially, that sounds appealing (well, to scientists, not to journalists), but a deeper look showed that it’s not the real answer.
That’s because most of the hype is not being added by the newspapers – it’s being passed on by them. The hype is coming from the press releases issued by the universities themselves. Here’s their analysis of the problem, but before anyone starts feeling superior to university press offices, it turns out that the same problem exists with the PR put out by journals and publishers. Note that in the great majority of cases, the releases from the journals and the universities are already supposedly approved by the scientists involved.
The great majority of stories that appear in the popular press on such subjects are written off of such press releases, of course. So if you want to do something about the newspapers and web sites getting things wrong, you should go back and turn down the volume on those. Chambers has some very good advice for scientists who speak with journalists in that Twitter thread, but it boils down to realizing that you’re not going to be able to ask to check their copy before publication, because you’re not in some special category. If the reporter offers to run some parts past you to make sure that they come off correctly, great – take them up on it and thank them. But that’s their offer to make, not your condition to demand. And the first step to seeing that your results aren’t distorted is to make sure that the press release doesn’t start out by doing just that.
Postscript: you’ll notice that a third category isn’t covered, that is, press releases from industry. Those are probably assumed to be hyped up to the edge of what the law will allow anyway, maybe more, and that assumption is probably a good one to work with. It’s just that the press material put out by universities and scholarly/commercial publishers cannot be assumed to be any better.
Postscript 2: I single out the Daily Mail above because of their almost unbroken record, in my own experience, of exaggeration and misstatement about biomedical news. The paper has a storied history of such practice, though, and certainly not only in medical news. And the quality journalism continues up to this very morning.