How Academics Can Help Reporters get Their Facts Straight

Source: http://xkcd.com/882/
Source: http://xkcd.com/882/

On Friday, the Guardian held a live chat Q&A to discuss how academics can help journalists report science accurately. The challenge is huge. From the article:

Academics have never been under more pressure to engage with the public and show the impact of their work. But there’s a problem. The media, one of the key channels for communicating with people outside academia, has a reputation for skewing or clumsily confusing scientific reports…

But it’s not just journalists who are at fault – as the Cardiff researchers later found out. Their experience of misreporting prompted them to embark on a project investigating where such inaccuracies and exaggeration typically originate. They found that most inflation and distortion in media reports of biomedical and health-related science began in press releases produced by academics and their universities.

If we can’t even get our press releases right, what hope does the average journalist have? But chat participants came up with great advice on how academics can help ensure that non-scientists accurately understand and communicate their work. A sampling:

One of the problems I find (as a researcher) is, as is said in the article, research findings are often not as groundbreaking as the media would like them to be. This is nobody’s fault, but a research finding which says “we may have found something which is possibly important but more research is needed” doesn’t make headlines. I think a more steady stream of research findings of all types in mainstream media would help the public become more aware of how research works and how it is often uncertain.

 

University press officers should be working with the scientists who ran the original study. So when you see those shoddy PRs, there’s no reason why the original researchers couldn’t have made more effort to get the information right.

 

As a journalist, I see several problems:

1. The news cycle. We rarely have time to do more than write about the newest, most sexiest and most novel sounding study. Sometimes employers pressurise journalists to write copy without even getting quotes from study authors.
2. The combative research environment – every PR and scicomms person is trying to attract any press interest they can to promote their brand of science
3. Few professional science journalists, few outlets to write about much science and low pay

I think it is important that academics or press officers keep on to the message and not to exaggerate, use clear unambiguous description of the work to prevent common mistakes that might crop up in the reporting process.

Academics have to be extremely involved in the press release writing process – it should be a partnership between them and the press office who are communicating their work. It’s the role of a responsible press office to manage the balance ensuring that a release is clearly written, newsworthy but not hyped. No press officer wants to be accused of hype!
Whenever a press release goes out with an academic’s name on it, it’s in their interests for them to also ensure its accuracy – so working collaboratively is the only way to achieve this.

I would love to see press releases that have a very clear section at the end, with bullets saying (a) this is what the study does show, (b) this is what the study does not show, and (c) these are the limitations of the study.
But if you do engage with a journalist, and you feel badly misrepresented, you must let that journalist know – it’s often not wilful and if it’s a fair challenge they are often wiling to change online articles. It should be a two way process – and journalists have often told me they want to know when scientists are unhappy
Part of the problem is a generic one. I think that many people consider that science is all about facts – what we know. People expect science to be presented as facts and journalist want to be able to present facts. The reality is that most cutting edge science is about what we don’t know, opinions, nuances and probabilites. It doesn’t help – that many scientists forget this also.
…often when you see things going wrong in media reporting of science it’s because of the complexities of explaining risk and uncertainty. This is not something that can be solved overnight but by scientists continuting to engage with the media – while sticking to the science – they can make a difference.
The core problem is the a priori assumption by all concerned that the only way to communicate science research is indirectly via the press and media. As long as universities persist in this antediluvian obsession with press releases, this problem will persist.

In today’s world, universities should be communicating their research directly, via their website, to a self-selecting group of interested parties among the general population who will then disseminate that content via social media to other interested parties.

As someone who works in a medical research charity communicating research and responding to media queries, I get frustrated by press offices, and the researchers themselves, making a bigger deal out of their work then it is (see release of today’s story and this one from last year. The sad thing is, most of the time the research is actually pretty interesting, but prompting the media for a sensational headline is not OK and needs to be addressed.

Read more via The Guardian: Live Q&A: How can academics help science reporters get their facts straight?

About Alisa

I'm a writer, blogger and social media specialist with nearly 15 years experience in medical and science writing for organizations that include Caltech and UCLA, as well as non-profit fundraising and political organizing. I specialize in making complex information clear and compelling. Learn more about my work here