Tips to Combat Sensationalism in Science Reporting


Anyone engaged in public relations at the nexus of consumer chemicals and public health bears the battle scars earned from an immensely volatile news cycle. That cycle is sustained by an endless supply of research coming out of universities and paid consultants on everything from the cancer preventing qualities of turmeric to the immediate threat from phylates in your shampoo and plastic cups.

Each day brings a new looming health threat. Eggs will give you hypertension on Monday, but by Wednesday they will lower your cholesterol. Coffee will cure Alzheimer’s, but BPA from your soda can will give you breast cancer and raise your blood pressure. You don’t need to look far too spot over-hyped news stories with headlines that reflect nothing of the studies they purport to describe.

In this environment, where scientific papers are overtaken by more scientific papers in a matter of hours and where any controversy is milked for maximum effect, it is challenging for a public relations professional to establish a narrative that can take root with the media. PR professionals find themselves at the mercy of a news cycle that is far more interested in sensationalized headlines than shows of restraint, thoughtfulness, and balance in science journalism.

Before you chalk this perspective up as sour grapes, I’d encourage you to read a recent story from Vox titled “Why so many of the health articles you read are junk.” According to Vox, the British Medical Journal recently reviewed the correlation between enthusiastic academic PR shops and sensationalism in science news stories.  The study, aptly titled “The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study,” found a striking correlation between the number of academic press releases containing exaggerated claims and media reports with over-hyped content.

After reviewing 462 press releases from 20 leading research universities throughout the UK, the researchers found that “over one third of press releases contained either exaggerated claims of causation (when the study itself only suggested correlation), unwarranted implications about animal studies for people, or unfounded health advice.”

That hype carried over to media coverage. The study found that if “a press release confused correlation with causation, 81 percent of related news articles would.  And when press releases made unwarranted inferences about animal studies, 86 percent” of the news coverage followed suit.

The connection between hyperbolic press releases and a media happy to echo exaggerated claims isn’t hard to understand in the context of today’s media landscape.  As my colleague Cathy Imus pointed out on a recent Strategy Room blog, the face of the media is changing. Falling newspaper circulation and corporate repositioning have left many reporters facing buy-outs or a larger workload.  Reporters who cover science news may also cover any number of other topics, and there is only so much time before deadline to come up with content that will interest readers and drive traffic to websites. It makes sense that a reporter would embellish their source material to keep their editors happy.

Of course, what works best for reporters is almost never what works best for public relations professionals. So how do we break this symbiotic relationship between the media and university PR departments eager to secure headlines and attract grant money for their researchers?  Here are four tips that can help:

1. Make your content visual and easy to digest

Scientific studies are jam packed with information presented for those in the scientific community to review and digest, not for a reporter to relate in a news report. Academic PR departments recognize this and boil the findings down into press releases where they can exaggerate.

Fight back by taking a study’s most compelling findings and put them in an easy to read and understand graphic that the media can use in their reporting. A good case study is a newly developed report card by the North American Metal Packaging Alliance, which takes studies on BPA and grades them against established National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) measurement criteria.

2. Once you have the graphic, hit social media

The speed at which scientific research spreads over social media is astounding. It just takes one headline from respected journals or fringe new age health sites to spark a wildfire across Twitter and Facebook.  The day of the press release as the central messaging channel in public relations is dead and gone.  To reach the audiences you want, your first stop must be social media.

3. Actively engage your audiences

Instead of tweeting out links to reports and studies, actively engage with your audiences through direct tweets or posts and solicitations for comment. Supply your audience with novel information that they can’t find anywhere else and become a resource for them.  Directly tweet reporters and editors with your messages.  Passivity no longer cuts it when communicating about science, especially where consumer chemicals are concerned.

4. Follow your social outreach with a real conversation

The ease and immediacy of conversations over social media will never replace real face-to-face, issue driven discussions.  Once you establish your narrative on social media, follow-up with reporters and request a background briefing to talk about the specifics of a study that can’t be adequately translated in 140 characters or less. It’s more than checking off a box; it’s a duty to your client.

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