Scientists under pressure for publication, enthusiastic communication officers and non-critical journalists all have a part in spreading misinformation. There is no easy fix, but guidelines can help to put attention to the risks of misleading the public.
In May 2016, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) send out a set of guidelines for people working in stem cell research. The guidelines included recommendations for scientist in stem cell research about what they should keep in mind, when communicating with the public and with the press in particular.
The difference in this set of guidelines from the hundreds of other lists of advices that press officers provide for “their” scientists was the emphasis on how to avoid exaggerations and hype in the media. In a comment in Science the steering group in ISSCR explains that:
“The focus on public communication, which is new to this version of the guidelines, is the result of both specific concerns regarding how stem cell research has been portrayed in the public sphere and the growing recognition that researchers play an important role in the science communication process.”
Can dilute the ethical discussions of research
The guidelines were (to this author’s knowledge) the first attempt from the academic world to take responsibility for the hype in media, concerning scientific results. One of ISSCK’s main concerns was, that the hyperbolic media attention will turn both the public and the scientific communities away from ethical discussions about the technology and towards an over-positive approach. Potentially this can result in policymaking based on false premises and premature clinical use.
The concern corresponds with a study published in BMJ and referred in Nature. The study conclude that scientific papers contain more positive and sensational words, which can eventually lead towards to exaggerations of the importance of the results.
The leading scientist behind the study, psychiatrist Christiaan Vinkers thinks that the pressure to get published leads to put emphasis on words that will make their study stand out from thousands of others. As he states to Nature, the findings: “fit our own observations that in order to get published, you need to emphasize what is special and unique about your study.”
The communication twist
It is not only certain scientists that becomes tempted to use language that can be picked up in a questionable way. Several studies published in PLOS and BJM determine that communication officers at research institutions tend to spice up the language in a way that could make the cause-and-effect factor grow to more than the study can account for.
Why does this happen? One would think that information officers would have the same interest as scientists to not oversimplify information to the extent where it becomes incorrect.
There are different explanations, according to this post from HealthNewsReview. Press officers can be under pressure from the management to get coverage for certain studies. The press office can be understaffed, so too little time is allocated to go into depth with the study. Also, lack of experience from the staff can come into play sometimes.
The journalistic twist
Correspondingly to scientists and press officers, journalists have a vast responsibility for not contributing to the hype of scientific results. Because of course this happens too, as e.g. this study from BJM or this one from JAMA Oncology shows. Obviously sometimes to get more readers, but in some cases subtler and perhaps unintentional.
Let’s look at a (fictive) example. A science/health journalist is going to write a story about a study that reads: Inactivity among 45-50 years old men for more than eight hours a day was associated with a 50 % increase in the relative risk of developing diabetes.
An attempt to convert the scientific lingo into something less wordy and passive might go like this: Middle-aged men who spend too much time on the couch double their risk of getting diabetes.
It might look innocent. But actually, the journalist magically added a cause-and-effect to the study. The original wording suggested a relationship between being passive and developing diabetes, but not that being inactive itself can cause diabetes. There might be various other reasons for the correlation.
This is probably unintended, and can happen for both experienced and inexperienced writers. Nevertheless, it contributes to the increasing number of contradictory one-liner stories where coffee is proclaimed healthy one day, and unhealthy the next.
As science journalists, we should also be able to pick up the PR jargon just as well as the scientific. When we receive a press release that presents a study in an over-positive way, we need to make sure to not just deliver the sender’s message uncritically. Even if the newsroom is busy, we must resist the temptation to churnalism.
So, what can be done?
There is really no easy fix to avoid hype and hyperbolic science reporting. All parties have responsibilities. One initiative is to form and follow guidelines, as ISSCR did. There are several guides for science communicators and science journalists, but often we fail to use them because of various reasons: pressure for delivering coverage or content, too little time or the simple fact that we, after some years, think that we know it all by heart.
Here are some suggestions:
– Make your own checklist of pitfalls and make it a habit to always go through them, no matter what.
– Reread your own piece (you can even read it out loud) by taking the approach of the scientist, the communication officer and the journalist. Would you phrase something differently, if you pretended to be in one of the other roles?
– Turn on your bullshit generator. If something sounds too good to be true, it often is. Go to the primary source and double check the conclusions, the method, the p-value. Just do it.
– If you can’t afford to drop the story, then change the story. Put the study into context of other studies or find alternative angles. It’s totally possible and you can do it.