32 thoughts on “Do scientists encourage misleading media coverage?”

  1. I think the question is, was this article put out by a media source from the university, or by someone who actually worked on the research project? If it is the former then it is excusable. Any writers job is to engage their audience, and taking leaps in logic is one of the best ways to do so.

    Even if this is the case, the question becomes why isn’t there a report right next to this one by a researcher (ideally the one leading the study) outlining the results of the study? It is the job of the researcher to provide an understandable (by a non scientist) first-hand account of observable facts found in the course of their study. If they do not, then any twisting or spinning of their work is their own fault.

    1. It looks like the piece was put out by the University press office, but with input from the researchers – although knowing how these things work, it isn’t clear how involved the researchers were in developing the main thrust of the piece.

      I think it’s fine to use a hook that draws people into the science – but there are limits, and there should always be a clear and plausible explanation of the science and it’s relevance. Just sticking with the hook might get coverage, but it doesn’t increase understanding!

  2. I would say that BOTH the scientist and his university press office are to blame in this case. In my experience, the scientist always has a chance to review what the press office has written before a press release is issued. And since the scientist knows better about the accuracy of the material, perhaps the scientist should bear more than 50 percent of the blame in such cases.

    1. Putting aside how damaging behavior like this can be to science reporting and understanding, it’s an easy trap to fall into if you aren’t vigilant – and I think you are right that, like in this case, the scientists and the press office both bear some of the responsibility.

      Scientists are constantly pushed to justify the relevance of their research – both to raise funding, and to “communicate” to the “public.” The press office on the other hand are looking to use attention-grabbing research to raise the university’s profile – prominent press coverage means (the argument goes) more students, more funding etc…

      Without effective checks and balances in place, the result is press releases that play on the more outlandish fantasies of the scientists, without the inconvenience of the science to moderate them.

      Of course, most scientists and press officers do their best to balance imagination, publicity and good science communication – but it’s easy for things to slip, as I think this particular case shows.

  3. Andrew,
    I found your post awesome and I would like to ask for you authorization to have it translated to Portuguese in my blog.
    In the blog “Ciência na Mídia” (Science on the Media) I have a monthly session named “Translated Science” and I would be glad to post the portuguese translation for this post, so brazilians that do no read English would be able to read it.
    Of course I would refer to the author and provide a link to the original post.
    Thank you very much,

  4. Thanks for your very thoughtful post. In my experience–dealing in particular with the hoary issue of endocrine disruption from the nonprofit organization perspective–it’s really important for the scientist to have the last word, in the sense of saying “you can’t say that!” There’s a tension between many scientists’ academic training of sticking to the facts and avoiding undue speculation on the one hand and professional communicators’ job to provide the “news hook”. Striking the right balance can indeed be a challenge, for the reasons you’ve put so well.

    1. Thanks Richard. Things become all the more important when dealing with evidence-informed decision-making. This is where speculation or spin can lead to decisions that are either badly misguided, or that support scientific cherry picking to support particular positions.

  5. This happens all the time. Especially on Science Daily, which in my experience is little more than a minor tweak of the original press release. In many cases even the headline is the same.
    Sure, journalists are only as good as their sources, but many are also time-pressed or lazy. If a canny press officer has provided a sexy story which they can easily write into an article with little thought – all the better.
    As you correctly identify, what ends up in press releases is often the same thing that would be on a grant application – the embryonic, distant, if we do this research then maybe… – except the press release neglects to mention the timescale.
    For those of us who will actually read the paper before writing about it, the press release becomes a way of being informed about a possibly interesting paper out there, which we woud not have come across otherwise. You can only follow so many journals’ “new article” rss feed!
    Actually apart from the often rather imaginitive press releases, university press officers are some of the best – they stick to putting you in touch with the proverbial horse, rather than trying to intermediate, listen in on phone interviews, or providing anaemic, sanitised and generally worthless “quotes”.
    A spokesman for DEFRA said: “this is a vitally important area and we will be maintaining a close interest in future developments”

    1. Ha – I’m afraid I’ve been responsible for enough “anaemic, sanitised and generally worthless” quotes in my time :-)

      Thanks for pointing out the vital role that a good press office will play – connecting journalists with scientists. And you are right – in an ideal world, journalists (professional or amateur) should be sure of their stuff, rather than simply cutting and pasting. But this touches on a much larger issue – how on earth can we ensure effective and professional reporting when a dwindling number of pros are expected to cope with an ever-increasing flood of information, while competing with new media and direct-from-source news outlets? In my experience, journalists are no lazier than any other profession – but they do face tremendous hurdles to doing their job well, and need all the help they can get.

      1. it is easy to find that sort of a quote in an article: right at the very end! The journalist felt obliged to include it but couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say about it..

        on productive journalist-scientist interaction, I find what works well is to get the scientist to look at what I’ve written when I’m not sure I got their point 100%. More time required on both sides, but the results are more likely to please everyone. Obviously would be tough for a daily journo!

  6. I’ve been interviewed by journalists and PR people often enough to know that even the best-prepared, most eloquent soundbites get used if and as the interviewers see fit. Leaving explanations of science to the Nisbets and Mooneys of the world only results in the self-labeled pundits’ personal aggrandizement. At the same time, practicing scientists who become popularizers of science meet disapproval not only from their peers but also from those who prefer them to function only as obedient technicians (religious and political leaders prominently among them). Finally, blinding people with scientifically accurate vocabulary and concepts won’t avail either science or society if non-scientists haven’t been trained from elementary school onward to wield the reasoning tools necessary to interpret and query even lay depictions of science.

    More on this issue:
    On Being Bitten to Death by Ducks
    The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction

    Athena Andreadis
    Associate Professor of Cell Biology
    Author of The Biology of Star Trek

    (Comment corrected, 1/11/09)

    1. Hi Athena,

      I must confess that, as a physicist, I find both Matthew Nisbit and Chris Mooney rather insightful and stimulating – and not at all “self-labeled pundits” looking for “personal aggrandizement” – although I don’t always agree with them.

      In my experience, things work best all round – between scientists, journalists and non-specialists – if people are willing to work together in partnership, respecting what each brings to the table, and being just a little humble when it comes to ones own limitations. This generally leads to informative coverage.

      1. There is a saying about charlatans, Andrew: they speak of biology to physicists and of physics to MBAs. In my opinion, Nisbet and Mooney fit this description. And they are most definitely not humble.

  7. P. S. One of my sentences should read, “At the same time, practicing scientists who become popularizers of science meet disapproval not only from their peers but also from those who prefer them to function only as obedient technicians.”

  8. Interesting to see everyone’s thoughts on scientific journalism, and yet we still leave it to the journalists to publicize our work. Why don’t more researchers do it themselves if the journalists screw it up so bad?

    1. The perfect lead-in to discussing the role of scientist-bloggers :-)

      I actually think there is a role for trained communicators to bridge the gap between “knowledge generators” and “knowledge users” – but there is an important complimentary role for more direct source-recipient communication, as long as the “sources” are enabled to do this effectively.

      1. There are many scientist bloggers out there doing exactly that for the last decade or so. From the aggregate of Scienceblogs.com to Biology in Science Fiction to Centauri Dreams to my own tiny oar, we’re doing our part — on top of doing research, writing grants, teaching, mentoring students, postdocs and junior faculty, arguing with people who want to teach creationism in schools and trying to give journalists the correct soundbites.

  9. I am a strong proponent of information by first hand account. I just can’t get around the idea that a journalists concern (blogger or institutionalized) is to generate views. Look at the dietary supplement industry. Every article/blog on is basically preliminary and vague research results run amok. Bloggers do not have there scientific integrity on the line, and so they can afford to sensationalize results to garner interest. I do see the value in creating interest for research, however I still feel that there is nothing a blogger can offer in regards to knowledge. Every person that information goes through before it reaches the public will change it a little bit. It’s just like playing telephone in grade school.

    1. I actually think there are people who can add value to information by connecting “sources” to “receptors” – but with the decentralization and even democratization of communication, it’s getting really tough to separate the “good” sources from the “bad” – and even harder to ensure misinformation and misinterpretation don’t dominate. I still feel there are important and complementary roles for scientists, science communicators (amateur and professional) and science journalists – the bigger problem is coping with practices that damage information flow and end up ultimately dis-empowering people.

  10. You are right. These “connectors” can add perspective by comparing the results of a study to a larger body of all related work. This is necessary because obviously researchers have biases as well, and no single study can stand alone. I suppose what I am talking about is a system in which all researchers offer their first hand accounts of their work to the public in an organized way. This would allow end users of the information to easily compare any results to other related studies, eliminating the need that science journalists/bloggers fill and thus reduce the chances of the information being contaminated. I feel that this system is a possibility, but maybe I overestimate its merit?

    P.S. Sorry for hogging up your comment space, I just so rarely get to talk on this subject with anyone in a meaningful way!

    1. That, I’m with you on 100%! This gets into the issue of open access publishing, as well as researchers packaging their work for a broader audience and making their findings directly available – both essential IMHO.

      And no apologies needed – the more comments/discussion the better :-).

  11. Hi Andrew! I would be very happy if research were more easily accessible but … I have a story for you. It begins with with a local nuclear physics lab searching for a technical writer; the word was that the facility scientists and administrators had a problem. Their highly specialized experts couldn’t understand each other’s research papers. That’s why they needed a technical writer, someone who would force the experts to explain what they were saying in more generalized language so their colleagues in the cubicles next to them would be able to understand. True story. As for the public, most people won’t even try something outside their own area of expertise or their comfort zone due to a new vocabulary; references to other, unfamiliar research; too much material in their own areas of interest; etc. Yes, science bloggers, technical writers, and others of my ilk can contaminate the information but we also do something else. Most people I know won’t ask a molecular neurobiologist (or other expert) a question but I will, even knowing that it’s likely not a good question and, if I get a jerk, that I’ll be ridiculed or patronized. When I’m doing well, I’ll ask the question an expert won’t ask, due to my ignorance which often reflects the public’s ignorance on the topic. Anyway, I think the whole thing is a process. I get contaminated information and pass it on but I continue reading, learning, and refining until my understanding becomes less contaminated and the public goes through the same process of refining the information.

    1. Great story Maryse, and one that beautifully illustrates the need for people capable of translating knowledge. And I love your points about being the person with the guts to ask the “stupid” questions – i.e. the questions everyone else wants to ask, but is too afraid to!

  12. Hi Andrew! Glad you liked the story and my point about asking ‘stupid’ questions. One thing which I failed to make explicit about my story was that even experts can have scientific literacy issues (something you touched on in a previous post of yours a few months ago) and worries about revealing their ignorance when they are operating outside their specific expertise so expecting members of the public who are likely to be even more hesitant to dive into research papers may be a little optimistic. Getting back to your original topic, “Do scientists encourage misleading media coverage?” Yup, they do. (1) There are bad apples everywhere, including science. (2) Some are trying to emulate what they think is a good media relations strategy and inadvertently contribute to misleading coverage. I imagine there are more possibilities but ’nuff said from me. Thanks for bringing up the topic.

  13. Andrew, thank you for writing the post. I was sick of science news coverage in Turkish newspapers and wrote similar post in my Turkish blog in September (http://www.nanoturkiye.net/2009/09/30/kopyalanamayan-nano-sifreli-cd-uzerine/ – You may use Google Translate)

    Newspaper claimed that our researchers made CD’s that cannot be copied. Actual research was a new method for identifying to CD’s which have same information stored in them. There was not a CD production at all! Moreover, newspaper readers wrote comments like “impossibility of non-copyable CD; we stopped used CD’s, so research is useless, etc.” :)

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