Scientists, press-officers, and journalists are motivated by overlapping and divergent interests. Scientists and universities face increasing pressure to achieve social impact, while reporters face ever higher workloads (see the vicious circle diagram at bottom of text). This creates ever greater importance of packaged material such as press-releases, which must strike a difficult balance between exciting interest and maintaining scientific accuracy (see illustration of the science-to-news chain).
We have been investigating the potential role of press releases in creating misleading reports of science in the press. First we analysed all the biology and health-related press releases from the ‘Russell Group’ universities in the UK in 2011, the associated peer-reviewed journal articles that the instigated the press releases, and in turn, the news stories that arose. We analysed the association between exaggeration in news stories and press releases, and whether exaggeration or caveats in press releases are associated with higher or lower news coverage.
We have been following this study up with a similarly large analysis of press releases from high profile academic journals, and their associated news stories and peer-reviewed journal articles.
We are also using surveys and experiments to examine how and why things might go wrong – for example whether certain phrases in press releases routinely mislead, or to what extent readers are sensitive to the differences between phrases that actually mean different things.
We have just started an ESRC-funded grant to collaborate with press officers to study press releases in the real world – how different styles or phrasing might be more or less likely to mislead.