Pressures in all stages of the news-making process can lead to hype in science reporting.
It has become popular for people to receive, on landmark birthdays, a copy of a daily newspaper from the day of their birth. Someone born today, should they receive such a present in the future, may well wonder what on Earth they have in their hands.
The death of the printed daily paper has been much discussed. But the life of the printed daily paper is a curious thing, too: an entire existence predicated on the lie that the world has changed so much since the previous day that readers must pay for an instant briefing that they can hold in their hands. The same applies the following day, the day after that and so on.
The Internet has changed all of that, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. Yet one cultural legacy of the print-news world still rules: competition. Print readers were the ultimate consumers. Newspapers would compete for their patronage, and to make that happen, newspaper editors would make reporters compete for available space. Reporters would compete with rivals for stories. And anyone with a good story to tell had to compete with a thousand other people to get through to the reporter. The entire news-publishing business was an ever-decreasing circle, with someone on each step in the chain desperate to give the people on the next step exactly what they wanted.
What they all wanted, of course, was a good story — or more accurately, a better story than the other source, reporter, editor or newspaper was offering. Hence, routine speeches by politicians are often described as the most important of their careers, football matches with little at stake are ‘must-win’ and house prices are perpetually poised between collapse and meteoric rise. Good stories, naturally, are open to a little exaggeration; and a little more at the next step and so on. Newsroom culture demands that the most common phrase exchanged is not “Is this true?” but “Can we say this?”
Here comes the science bit. The reason that any of this matters to Nature is that science stories in the news, or more precisely, health and medical-science stories, are known to influence the behaviour of the people who read them. Together with the collective responsibility that many scientists feel for the way that research is communicated in the media (a responsibility that, say, estate agents seem to lack), this makes media coverage of research an important and much-scrutinized topic.
There is a demand for straight, less-conventional ‘news’ about science.
A study that has been heavily discussed over the past week or so focuses on the bottom step in the news chain described above: the information that universities give to reporters about published research (P. Sumner et al. Br. Med. J. 349, g7015; 2014). The details appear on page 291 of this issue, but can be summarized as follows: exaggeration in press reports of published medical-research papers is also present in press releases sent out by universities to promote those papers.
To conflate, briefly, correlation and causation (which the study counts as exaggeration), it seems that blame for media hype of medical research can be placed as firmly at the door of university press offices as on the headline-hungry keyboards of journalists.
Some journalists have nobly resisted the temptation to pass the blame in this way, and insisted that their profession must do more to check the claims made by others before handing them on. Others have called for stricter controls on what universities say, and for scientists who have their work promoted to be held accountable. These are all sensible ideas, and Nature fully supports the idea that researchers should work closely with those who write and circulate press releases on their behalf.
Exaggeration will persist in the news cycle only if it benefits all those involved — from the scientists who can count press coverage as ‘impact’ to the reporters who bag another high-profile byline and the approving comments of their bosses.
But will it persist? Coming back to the description of newsroom culture, “Can we say this?” is itself giving way to “What else can we say?” as elastic electronic boundaries of news websites replace physical page budgets. The rise (and mass readership) of specialist blogs shows that there is a demand for straight, less-conventional ‘news’ about science. The implicit benefit of exaggeration — to help stories to squeeze through the next stage in the news process — is weakening.
The study suggests as much — there was no link between the amount of exaggeration in a press release and the media coverage that it received. The truth, in other words, does not have to hurt.
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Spin cycle. Nature 516, 287–288 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/516287b