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Press Coverage

Where Does the News Hype Come From?

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.

35 comments on “Where Does the News Hype Come From?”

  1. Lawrence says:

    The Daily Mail is most often referred to, even by it’s readers, as The Daily Fail due to it’s integrity and accuracy. At other times it is referred to as bog paper!!

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      And then there was the period in the 1930s when its sympathy to fascism led to the “Daily Heil” nickname. . .

      1. Diver Dude says:

        AKA the Daily Hate. A more loathsome rag it is difficult to conceive. But then, I am a lifelong Gruaniad reader.

        1. ex-London Chemist says:

          Would that be the same Grauniad that moans incessantly about tax avoidance while benefiting heavily from… avoidance?

    2. Peter Kenny says:

      The Daily Fail is indispensable should one be ‘caught short’ in a public lavatory. However, I always found the Sunday Sport more entertaining and ‘Lord Lucan found riding Shergar’ takes some beating. I also enjoy the ToryGraph letters to Editor where one can tap into the freely flowing wisdom of Spitting Feathers In Chalfont St Giles.

      1. DanielT says:

        How can you leave out the Torygraph’s obituaries?

        Journalism needs a major overhaul to bring it into the 21st C. Most of the causes of its failing are no longer an issue, like time and space constraints.

        1. Peter Kenny says:

          The ToryGraph obits are indeed excellent and I’ll share one of my favorites as the URL for this comment. Major Freddie Scott arrived in Normandy in a glider whose pilot skilfully exploited the well-known German tendency to minimize entropy:

          Soon after 9pm on D-Day, his glider crash-landed in the fields around Ranville, about five miles north of Caen. In his memoirs, Scott later wrote: “The Germans had erected poles all over the area but, in true Teutonic fashion, they were all in straight lines. So our pilot landed between them. The poles sheared off the wings and helped us slow down.”

  2. Project Osprey says:

    Fun fact, Wikipedia prohibits the Daily Mail from being used a reference, as it’s considered generally unreliable

  3. Curious Wavefunction says:

    Scott Aaronson just had a post in which he revised his policy for speaking to reporters and journalists. In an earlier post he said he has decided not to grant any interviews for a year. Then he found an egregious error in a high-profile article on quantum computing, so now he has revised his policy to say that he would be open to fact-checking already written up articles.

  4. nitpicker says:

    Wiki says that the father of the quote is Humbert Wolfe. And it should read “But seeing what the man will do”. Damned imprecise journalists.

  5. CMCguy says:

    Re Industry press releases your assessment appears on target in going to or stretching limits however that only really works if competent Regulatory and Communications people are mandated to be part of the pre-release reviews so that CEO or other Execs don’t drive the process to reflect their sometimes over-filtered view of things.

    You are also correct as I formerly focused the fault on journalist for poor science reporting until I would read University Press Releases that where being a parroted. Likewise I have encountered few scientists who can appropriately explain something at levels for understandable public consumption without diluting the meaning too much or hiding behind jargon.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      It can be a very narrow path between explanation and distortion for a lay audience, that’s for sure. Some topics are probably undoable. For example, I would not welcome having to explain a breakthrough in topological materials science to the general public, since I can barely explain that stuff to myself.

  6. Calvin says:

    I once went an event that was around training scientists to talk to the media (this was in the UK). It was clear that journalists do try to make a good stab of interpreting the science for non-scientists and there is not necessarily a deliberate desire to hype or mislead (these were tabloid journos but not the Daily Mail). Scientists do need to learn to speak to the media and understand how to pitch their stories

    But the big disconnect is the headline writers. I did not appreciate this until I went to the meeting, but headline writers are totally different from the journalists who write the stories and the headlines are written by completely different people. So headlines are often entirely disconnected from the story. The journalists have no control over the headlines (this was a clear source of frustration to the story writers). Often, headline writers can edit the opening paragraph of stories as well. This goes for paper print and online print.

    So while there are many actors in the hype machine, there are a number of surprises later that can make it even worse…..

    1. Bla says:

      I’ve had the same experience when a paper of mine was covered in the national (UK) press. To my shame, this included the Daily Fail. To my surprise, the actual article from them was not bad at all, and covered the basics fairly well. The headline however, was utterly terrible. I learned that this headline is written by the sub(editor), not the journalist who did a decent job at writing the article.

  7. Anon says:

    OX40-TLR9 Cures Cancer!
    Would this also be in the same category of hype?

  8. Peter Kenny says:

    To be fair, it’s not just the Daily Fail and the post reminded me of “It’s the largest computational docking ever done by mankind” and I’ve posted the link to that as the URL for this comment.

  9. Anon says:

    It would be refreshing to read the following in the next “Alzheimer’s Breakthrough!” news article:

    “Scientists have discovered/shown XYZ, but given the track record of similar “breakthrough” discoveries in the past, the odds of this research actually making any difference to the treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s disease are realistically somewhere between sweet F*** All and Zero”.

  10. Peter S. Shenkin says:

    Well, if the press merely parrots university (and other) press releases, why does the Daily Mail have more of a bad rep than the rest of the press for exaggerated scientific claims?

    Is the rest of the press more discriminating? If so, I suppose should be lauded.

    Finally, from Churchill, in his eulogy of Balfour:

    “At a luncheon, Mr. Frank Harris, wishing to shine, said ‘All the evil in the world is due to Christianity and Journalism.’ Arthur Balfour, contemplating this proposition for a moment, replied, ‘Christianity of course, but why journalism?'”

  11. Nugae says:

    It is indeed hard to know whether to pillory the journalists who rewrite the press release or break the legs of the people who write those releases. But to deride the Daily Mail in particular seems to trivialise the problem.

    In the link, an article in The Times, which, because The Times is The Times, _must be true_ . Before you read it, though, ask yourself this simple question: “Is my chance of dying more than 100%, or less?”

  12. Harrison says:

    Unfortunately I think this is pretty widespread. I recently saw a news story that misstated the statistics around a genetic association with Alzheimer’s disease. I guessed the reporter was at fault, but soon enough I saw other stories by different authors with the same mistake. Eventually I googled the offending phrase and the first hit was a press release from the University’s licensing and technology office.

  13. tt says:

    I guess I don’t find this very surprising. Professors and University’s are also beholden to market forces and the need to garner positive hype/press in order to secure funding as are those reporting on them. The press requires click bait headlines, mostly negative, to get eyeballs which translate to advertising dollars and the researchers need the press coverage to wave in front of funding agencies and (potentially) venture capital investors for the University licencing office backed startup companies…everyone wins, except for the public and patients who are waiting for these breakthroughs to actually translate into something real.

  14. Mark Thorson says:

    Whoa! Why pick on the Daily Mail? If Hitler’s cryogenically frozen body is reanimated, I can reliably expect that to be reported first in the DM. Alas, their coverage of Lesbians, Tesco, and Suri Cruise has declined precipitously since about three years ago. I miss the Lesbians. The only constants seem to be coverage of U.S. female high school teachers having sex with their students, and the utter disregard with using spell-checkers.

    1. E Samuels says:

      Ah, beat me to it! Absolutely brilliant!!

  15. DH says:

    It’s not just science reporting that is problematic. One must fight the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect in all its manifestations.

  16. gippgig says:

    “you’re not going to be able to ask to check their copy before publication”? Wrong! – anybody can request anything of anyone. Of course, anyone can refuse any request.
    Practical suggestion: Offer to review the story before it’s published.

  17. DrOcto says:

    Top story on the website that this very blog is hosted upon;

    ”An aquarium accident may have given this crayfish the DNA to take over the world”

    Nobody is immune to the temptation.

  18. Maor says:

    Scientist: This statement is technically true because it includes a subtle caveat intended to be relatively unnoticable
    Journalist: Too wordy
    Scientist: Why don’t journalists care about accuracy?

  19. FLIP_an_IPO says:

    Unfortunately 90% of “science” enterprise/business is about trading stocks, making money, or “blinding them with science”, not actually making things of value. Take all the “breakthrough” cancer drugs we hear about all the time now. The majority of them are only able to extend life for a short time, while draining families savings, yet we hear about breakthrough this and breakthrough that.

    I always marveled at how many of the “scientists” working in these companies didn’t have the basic street smarts to see this, or many of them are so weary from grad school slavery that they are just desperate for a paycheck.

    The main reason for empty pipelines is that the truly capable people in the world, those who can do something else with their lives, take a look at the situation and just walk away.

    Anyone that has been around for a while can see that it’s just the same mediocre psychopaths in white coats getting recycled over and over again in the next ridiculous pump and dump feeding hyped press releases to the media.

    People who are considering studying science and getting into the industry are usually oblivious to this. They are fooled by professors and their way of speaking about things as though they are above everyone else because they “know science”.

    1. “The main reason for empty pipelines is that the truly capable people in the world, those who can do something else with their lives, take a look at the situation and just walk away.”

      I wonder how Derek Lowe, the author of this “In the Pipeline” blog, feels about this statement.

      At the very least, this was not particularly good manners.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        I think this is uninformed cynicism. The comment sounds a bit like my late grandmother railing about the evils of the AMA back in the 1970s, as they convinced desperate patients that they could help them. While there are certainly drugs that get overhyped and oversold, there’s also real progress out there. Which is being made by a lot of truly capable people.

  20. Li says:

    The plain fact is (imho) that it is very difficult to extract a finding/conclusion from its context and transplant that into the “everyman’s” reality. The most common bad examples I’ve seen recently are by Univ. PR offices and “science” journalists who show by their prose zero knowledge in the relevant field. Does anyone expect them to admit that they can’t do their job? I do think that academics shouldn’t be given a free pass on their’s University’s press release. Shouldn’t they be EXPECTED to review and ask for any corrections they feel is necessary? (and shouldn’t the PR office be expected to make those corrections. But that presumes the researcher and the bureaucrats are on cordial terms. And of course, many researchers don’t want to sully themselves by stooping to the level of the ‘everyman’.

  21. Vader says:

    In my outfit, we had a rather important finding recently that got a lot of press — which was almost uniformly badly reported.

    Yes, the journalists don’t understand the field. Yes, our PR people don’t seem to be able to get their story straight with the actual scientists.

    But the biggest problem was a manager, some ways up the food chain, who thought he knew a lot more about the project he was managing than he did. One cannot blame the PR people for going to the “head scientist” for their story. Nor were his underlings able to either get him straight on the story or get him to shut up.

    I don’t know how common this is. But it happened in this instance.

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