Ground-breaking. Life-saving. Revolutionary.
Health journalists like André Picard of The Globe and Mail and Julia Belluz of Vox.com often see such words splashed on press releases about new studies in medicine. “When I see those words,” says Belluz, “my little alarm bells go off.”
Journalists have come under fire for sensationalizing health science. But research shows that science can be hyped even before it reaches newsrooms. A study published late last year in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found more than one third of 462 press releases from top UK universities contained exaggerated statements.
Picard sees inflated conclusions most often in press releases from universities and donor-driven research foundations but “even some of the big journals” are guilty of hyperbole, he says.
Hype in science is a problem for many reasons. From climate change to vaccinations, science is “at the basis of so many of the issues we face in society,” says Penny Park, executive director of the Ottawa-based Science Media Centre.
Health policy researchers Timothy Caulfield and Celeste Condit, who have written on how hype gets produced around genomic science, note that the exaggeration leads to “excess optimism” and an “inadequate sense of limits, costs or risks.”
Worse still, oversold press releases can have the opposite-of-intended effect, leading to a disinterest in science in general. “When scientists say red wine is good for you one day and red wine is bad for you the next, that turns people off,” says Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto.
What’s being lost in the translation of science?
Both scientists and those who communicate science are far from sensationalists. “On the whole, everyone is pretty conscientious about trying to do things right compared to many sectors,” says Petroc Sumner, a professor of psychology at Cardiff University and lead author of the BMJ article mentioned above.
But science communicators do slip up, “unintentionally or intentionally,” says Matt Shipman, public information officer at North Carolina State University and author of a book for science communicators.
Common examples of hype in press releases include unfounded causational statements, using percentages to make a result seem bigger and suggesting a phenomenon noticed in a small number of people affects everyone in the same way.
“If they don’t say their subjects were only five healthy adult females who happen to be marathon runners, that’s a major issue,” says Jennifer Gardy, a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.
Belluz says in many study-based press releases, “a lot of the times the limitations aren’t mentioned at all or are really downplayed.” To make things worse, increasingly pressed-for-time journalists often don’t read the original research but “parrot” the press release.
More pressure on scientists to get media attention
Cyndy De Giusti, who is now retired after overseeing communications for major health organizations and hospitals, says writers of science press releases “may exaggerate the impact,” in order to get media attention. But it’s not just the writers. It’s standard that the scientists behind the research “sign off” on a release before it’s sent out, according to Shipman and De Giusti.
Both for research institutions and individual scientists, media attention can bolster one’s reputation and lead to more funding. Several sources explained that scientists’ ability to make their research relevant to a wide audience – via the media – is increasingly valued by public and private funding agencies.
Science communicators have reason to think sensationalizing is necessary, argues Aled Edwards, CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium. “When was the last time you saw a story on a boring little advance on something?” he asks. “It’s about feeding the 24-hour news cycle.”
With the dual pressure of funding agencies wanting media-experienced scientists and the mass media demanding attention-getting headlines, “scientists are being forced to override their natural tendency in being cautious,” says Gardy.
Overly optimistic language is often unintentional, however. Though most press release writers are well versed in the scientific method, others unknowingly make errors because “they have no fundamental understanding of what it is they’re writing about,” says Shipman. As for the scientists, De Giusti says many “are probably just very passionate and it can be hard to be objective about your own work.”
Another big reason scientists misrepresent findings is they’re not well versed in speaking to the media, argues Park. “They have a tendency to get into trouble when they’re not gauging the audience,” she says. They may mention limitations, for instance, but not in language that makes sense to a wider public. As De Giusti says, “if you fill an interview with all kinds of jargon and there’s one [exaggerated] sentence that happens to be understandable, that’s the one reporters are going to use.”
Should scientists keep mum about early findings?
In some cases, however, scientists and communications departments shouldn’t seek out public attention, several sources argued. For studies involving cells in test tubes or mice models “it’s too early to get the public involved,” says De Giusti. In 1999, Sick Kids Hospital sent out a press release about a study that showed a toxin in E. Coli bacteria shrunk certain brain tumours in mice. There was no evidence that the toxin effectively targeted cancer in human brains and 15 years later, the malignant brain cancer examined remains extremely fatal. News reports of the study raised hopes, however, and numerous people called De Guisti asking if they could be involved in human trials. “I remember the gut-wrenching calls,” she says.
“We’re very strategic in what we promote to the public and what we don’t,” adds Marta Cyperling, media relations manager at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. “If it’s really difficult to explain or has the potential to be misconstrued, it will likely be misreported.”
The misreporting can start with the press release. Sumner’s research revealed 36% of press releases on 105 studies in animals contained “inflated inference to humans compared with the journal article.” For example, a scientist may claim their finding in mice could lead to a new treatment in the coming decade, when the reality is that the overwhelming majority of treatments that show promise in animals don’t work in humans.
That doesn’t mean mice and cell-model studies aren’t important; nearly all discoveries of major treatments start this way. Woodgett worries if scientists don’t talk about early science, it could become “devalued in the public eye.” A compromise is to avoid reporting on single outcomes in basic science, but engage the media in the “process” of studying mice and petri-dish cells, Gardy argues. “I like to show that long trajectory from ‘Hey, here’s a molecule that does something interesting in a mouse to having a new therapy for cancer,’” says Gardy.
Solutions to keep hype in check
One of the best ways scientists can reduce hype is to be more media saavy themselves, argues Park. Her organization, launched in 2008, helps scientists fine-tune their messaging for the sound-bite format of journalism. (Some tips are available on their website.)
Cyperling prepares scientists affiliated to her university through a mock interview. “It’s a chance to see how I, who doesn’t have a scientific background, understood the information or perhaps misunderstood the information,” she says. Such preparation also reduces the chance of overstating things in the heat of the moment.
While journalists will always push scientists to talk about the real world application, Gardy says it’s possible to highlight the larger goal of improving health without insinuating a new treatment is around the corner. Scientists can say something along the lines of “we’ll be able to move on to this next stage of research that was never possible until now,” she says. As Woodgett points out, “it’s important to not just focus on a particular event.”
Engaging the public on big picture scientific issues is one way to talk more broadly and objectively about science while still meeting funders’ media expectations. “If you’re a geneticist, anytime there’s something in the media about DNA, you’re totally qualified to talk about that,” says Gardy.
Science communicator Robin Bisson is working to facilitate such discussions through his soon-to-be-launched, US-based Genetic Expert News Service. The service will compile quotes of numerous scientists on hot-button issues and send them to journalists; thus, journalists will hear from several researchers in the field instead of one.
Granting agencies have a role to play, too, says Woodgett. Major funders have already agreed upon a code of ethics for research; Woodgett says these agencies should also create rules around responsible reporting of findings to the mass media.
In the meantime, it’s up to scientists to hold each other accountable, argues Ben Goldacre, a British physician and renowned watchdog of his scientific community. He recommends press releases be appended to online journal articles, so that others reading a study can see how it was characterized to the media. This isn’t common practice, though the BMJ now includes press releases under “Related Content”. (Gardy suggests a more informal “peer review” – she recommends scientists pass draft releases to their peers to edit before it’s passed to the media.)
A more hardline approach to ensuring accountability for scientific hype is Health News Review, a website that reviews news articles and starting next month, will rate press releases on how fairly they report on health studies. (Shipman will be part of the review team.)
The platform aims to augment what Shipman calls the “Boy who cried wolf” disincentive. “If an institution or individual gets a reputation for misrepresenting work…reporters are less likely to want to work with them,” he says.
Do you think hype in the communication of medical research is a big issue? Have you seen exaggerated or inaccurate scientific press releases or news stories lately? Tell us more in a comment.