What can be done about press releases?

Maybe I was a little slow out of the gate on that one, but it dawned on me a while ago that press releases are one of the main problems when it comes to undermining the reliability of science reporting. This is especially relevant because sites like ScienceDaily, LiveScience, PhysOrg, and EurekAlert repost them with few or no changes, and this ends up being the only information about the study that many people read. In the most recent case, RPM and Larry point to a press release about an interesting article in PLoS Biology. Now, I am all for having accessible summaries of new articles, but inaccurate ones or those that play on common misconceptions are worse than nothing. So, what can be done about this? Can we require approval of press releases by the authors of the paper? (Not that this will help if the authors choose to partake in irresponsible hype). Are scientific blogs the only hope?


3 comments to What can be done about press releases?

  • greg laden

    The half dozen or so times that I’ve done newsworthy research (not front page, but not the personal ads either) I’ve been involved in this process, and have learned a few useful things.

    IF the research is being written up by an in house press agent, it is necessary to work with that agent very seriously. I’m sure that many scientists write off the process as unimportant, or in some cases, are encouraged by their units (departments, etc.) to not get too involved in the process (I have been so discouraged more than once). But the only way to handle this is to go back and forth with the press agent again and again until s/he has wording that is acceptable. Once there is acceptable wording in the press releases, better information will get out there, because these releases are often copied in whole or in part by press outlets.

    One of the most common problems, if you read a press release and a papers, is that the point of the paper and the point of the press release are utterly different. I read 30 or 40 press releases a week (at least) and look at a good number of the associated papers. I do this to get a better idea of what the researchers think is important. In about half the cases, the paper is fairly esoteric and simply cannot be converted into an interesting story, so the press release ends up being a bit of a disaster.

    If there is no press agent the scientists need to sit down with a person who can write if necessary and compose 500 words on the work being released. Any press contacts should involve sending this carefully and accurately worded document to the reporter BEFORE any interview. Only then will it matter. The interview can then be about clearing up the misunderstandings.

    Reporters claim that their ethics to not allow them to show final or penultimate drafts of their writings to anyone interviewed in the story, so the scientist has no chance to try to fix things up in the latter stages.

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  • TR Gregory

    Reporters claim that their ethics to not allow them to show final or penultimate drafts of their writings to anyone interviewed in the story, so the scientist has no chance to try to fix things up in the latter stages.

    Fine — scientists should be clear that our ethics do not allow us to contribute to having research misrepresented.

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  • Don Monroe

    I would not lump EurekAlert in with the others that you mentioned. EurekAlert is in the business of posting press releases, and their intended audience is the press (although everyone can see them once they are out of embargo).

    The other sites you list do aspire to add value, primarily by filtering: choosing releases of particular interest to some community. But I agree with you that they are dangerous because they present these regurgitated releases as if they are actual news stories, and many readers will not understand the difference.

    By the way, the latest entry to the DNA network, ThinkGene, appears to be one of these little-value-added recyclers of news releases. They are really clogging up the works with multiple stories that can be found anywhere (like laser-induced lighting!?!) It makes it hard for people to find among the DNA network the really thoughtful blogs like yours.

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