Sexing up science with headline hype?

15 December 2014

Interview with

Petroc Sumner, Cardiff University

Journalists often get the blame when scientific and health news is set to have been exaggerated or sexed up by the media.  But this new study in the British Medical Journal has found that in fact, the fault might lie with the universities themselves with the finding that 40% of the press statements issued in 2011 by 20 top UK universities contained embellishments or over interpretations of the original research.  Petroc Sumner tells Chris Smith the truth...

Petroc -   It's still the case that the majority of adults in the UK get most of their information about health and science from mainstream media sources, and so that's an awful lot of people, probably about 40 million people.  This information is used so that it biases people's behaviour and this can have a massive impact on public health.  The government often run public health campaigns but they will not have nearly the reach that just the daily media, both broadcast TV and radio and news, have on a daily basis.

Chris -   Where does that information that populates the news, newspapers, magnifying glass kidTV broadcast, radio shows... where does that news come from?  How does it start life and how does it end up in the hands of a journalist?

Petroc -   So, a lot of it starts life with a published paper in the academic domain.  So scientists who have done a study will try and publish their work in a recognised academic journal.  Once that gets published then the university or the journal can decide to issue what's called a press release which means that they write a short summary and they send it out to journalists who then might or might not be interested in writing that story up in the news.  The press release is normally written by both the academic authors of the original research but also specialised press officers who have experience in knowing how journalists like to receive information and not making it too long and making it accessible and so on.

Chris -   How reliable is the science, medicine, technology information that comes from these academic institutions and ends up in the public domain via this sort of route?

Petroc -   So, it used to be assumed and it's pretty to common to blame journalists when things go wrong in the press.  So, if you see an exaggeration or you see something taken out of context, it's often the case that people, their immediate reaction is just to blame the journalist.  But they haven't necessarily looked at the whole chain.  It turns out, a lot of what the journalists say where they get accused of hyping or exaggerating, those statements are already present in the press releases.  So, the press releases haven't been careful enough, if you like, in the way that they've expressed things, so as not to mislead and exaggerate.

Chris -   How did you arrive at that conclusion?

Petroc -   So, we studied all the press releases released by 20 major universities in the UK in 2011 and then we traced what was being said in the press release as well as in the news that followed the press release and what was originally said in the journal articles published by the academics.

Chris -   And you were then able to compare the integrity of the message that reached the public with what was in the journal.

Petroc -   Exactly.  So, we're able to see where the message changed and whether it changed most in the step from the journal to the press release or whether it's changed most in the step from the press release to what actually got published in the news.  It turned out that the first step was actually more changes and exaggerations were creeping in.

Chris -   What sorts of things were being exaggerated?  Can you give us some examples?

Petroc -   We analysed 3 types of thing.  One was advice to readers to change behaviour.  So, one example was where the original article just made a fairly mild statement that if mothers want to breastfeed, they need more information, and then the press release went ahead and said "mothers should breastfeed".  Other examples that are quite common is where you have observational studies that don't necessarily provide evidence for cause.  So for example, if the study was done where people with higher cancer rates also ate more biscuits, that gets exaggerated into biscuits cause cancer.

Chris -   Which of course, they don't, just to reassure people although potentially, they might in some cases.

Petroc -   Yes, that was a hypothetical example.

Chris -   To what extent does exaggeration reflect the fact that journalists might find it easier to flog a story to their editor and get it out there into the public domain if it's been sexed up?

Petroc -   We didn't actually find any evidence for that.  It was quite surprising because like everybody else, we went into the study assuming that hyped up press releases would generate more news.  In our study, they didn't and we don't know the reason for that.

Chris -   What's the scale of the exaggeration?  If it's a little bit, it doesn't really matter, does it so much, but is this pretty dramatic are there are big numbers involved here?

Petroc -   So, our study concentrates on the numbers rather than the scale.  So, we couldn't tell you whether any of these exaggerations are of the scale that would cause something like the MMR scandal to occur again, but the cumulative effect of so many of them that are happening, week in week out  could have a very large effect just cumulatively because there's such large an audience and they're making so many health related decisions, and there are so many news stories that break that the cumulative effect, although subtle for each individual or individual story could be quite large, either for good or for ill.

Chris - Do you think it's relevant that universities are now being ranked, not just in Britain but worldwide, by assessing how much news media they generate?  So for instance, if a scientist at a university publishes a ground-breaking paper and it generates headlines, that's being logged and used to rate that university.  Therefore, is there potentially a little bit of pressure on press offices to generate as many headlines as they can.  And therefore, there is something even incentive for press officers and maybe even scientists to exaggerate.

Petroc -   Yes, I think there's more than a little bit of pressure.  I think that we're in the early days of universities being held so much in competition and things like the news they generated, meaning so much to them.  At the moment, universities are very much thinking that the more news they get out there, the better.  At some stage, there'll be so much news out there that it might reach saturation point and then they'll care more about the quality and the accuracy, and the reputation management in that news rather than just getting news.

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