Journalists often get the blame when stories are said to have been sexed up by the media. But a new study in the British Medical Journal this week found that, in fact, the fault might lie with universities themselves.
Petroc Sumner, at Cardiff University, followed up the press statements issued throughout 2011 by 25 top UK universities, comparing the messages delivered to the public by the mainstream media with what was in the institutions' press releases and what had been written in the original published academic paper on which the press release was based. The results came as a suprise to the researchers.
"We went into this expecting to find that exaggerated claims would be down to the mass media." In fact, over 40% of the press releases, they found, contained embellishments or over-interpretations of the original research that were then passed on to the public.
It would appear that press officers in institutions are "sexing up" press releases in the hopes of making them more attractive to journalists, although it's a strategy that doesn't seem to work.
"We found no significant evidence that press releases with exaggerated or embellished claims were more likely to turn into news stories," says Sumner. "Although we don't know why!"
The findings are important though because the mass media constitutes the main route through which the general public form their scientific opinions, including whether to adopt certain health practices.
"It's much more powerful than what the government achieves through public health messages," says Sumner. So getting the message right is critical to avoid confusing - or harming - the public. Whether that is happening is impossible to say from the current study.
"We looked quantitatively at how often this was happening. We couldn't, for instance, say what the impacts of the findings would be on the population or how likely they are to produce another MMR scandal for instance."
The individual exaggerations might be quite small - such as a published paper saying "pregnant women should be given more information about breast feeding" and the related press release stating "women should breast feed" - but, collectively, owing to the volume of news items being produced, there is significant opportunity for the public to become significatly misinformed.
The trend is likely being driven by increasing pressure on universities to promote themselves and their research output to the public, because universities are now being rated against each other partly based on the volume of news coverage they originate.
"This means that there is enormous pressure on universities to generate as much news as possible," says Sumner. "Eventually we'll reach saturation point and then institutions will focus instead on quality and reputation..."