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The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7015 (Published 10 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7015

Re: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study

Sumner et al. have provided an insightful content analysis of a wide number of health-related press releases, along with their respective news articles and peer review papers. From this analysis, the authors illustrate how exaggeration in health-related news articles is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases. They raise concerns about how such exaggeration may mislead the public about health research. Moreover, by highlighting how scientists also have a role to play in drafting press releases (a finding GS has also reported in her research (1)), they conclude that calling for scientists to improve the accuracy of academic press releases could represent a key opportunity for reducing misleading and exaggerated health related news.

Similar to this research, much of our work has also explored the role of press releases and news stories in reporting health stories, and the effect of such stories on readers and/or patients. In particular, we have examined the press release and news media’s portrayal of a specific neurotechnology – the use of fMRI for severely-brain injured patients – alongside an exploration of relatives of severely brain-injured patients’ views about the technology. Our findings align with the findings of this study. Indeed, we agree with many of the conclusions drawn by the authors in relation to the importance of steering away from exaggerated claims in both press releases and news articles.

However, whilst efforts to change how press releases are written are important steps towards ensuring that less exaggerated claims are made during the news reporting process, for a variety of reasons we are more sceptical than the authors about the effect of calling for such changes. Our reasons for this are three fold. First, whilst exaggerated claims might begin at the point of the scientists, from the scientist to the newspaper there are a variety of contributors, including press officers, journalists, and editors, who may all potentially add a 'pinch of hype' (2) to the reporting of any science ‘story’. We would argue that changes in the way in which health-related news stories are written would thus require a more ambitious approach to change, which involves all potential contributors.

Second, re-iterating what the authors stated in their article, scientists work in a highly competitive environment which is driven primarily by the need to secure funding. In such a climate ‘selling’ science and getting research ‘out there’ is one route to garnering such resources (3). Research institutions, too, have their own agenda with regards to attracting the best students, academics and researchers that involves publicizing the research within their organisation. Changes to this political climate would arguably need to be implemented before we might see scientists or institutions altering the ways in which they disseminate research findings via their public relations departments.

Third, whilst much of the academic literature and rhetoric speaks about ‘exaggerated findings’ and the need to not mislead readers and patients alike (for example, see (4-7)), calls for more appropriate claims need to carefully consider that what is viewed as ‘appropriate’ may depend to whom one is speaking (1). We demonstrate this using our findings: when we interviewed ten science press officers about the press releases reporting the fMRI study, and about their role as science press officers more generally, all of them stated that they believed they acted responsibly when preparing press releases - they were cautious in terms of avoiding overly exaggerated claims. Moreover, they believed that the appropriateness of press releases was reflected in its accuracy and the necessary caveats it contained. What was less frequently seen as related to appropriateness of reporting was the particular style in which the articles were written – a point noted previously (8) - and the type of language that was used. However, the language style used in these press releases directly influenced how at least some of the relatives we interviewed viewed the health technology (9).

Whilst we are in total agreement with the authors about the need for scientists and press officers to write “more appropriately” in press releases, we think that differences remain as to what this term means across different perspectives, and consequently in relation to “doing harm” to readers and/or patients. Moreover, as we have described above, unlike the authors, we would argue that much broader changes are required to tackle the problem of science reporting head on. These changes need to relate not only to how science is communicated to the public, but also the political environment that surrounds science communication. We would also argue that the press released science “stories” so often reported in newspapers do not constitute “informing the public about science”. Rather, what we should, and indeed are beginning to do, is to search for more appropriate means which draw on concepts of public engagement, to engage the public in health-related research.

1. Samuel G. fMRI for severely brain-injured patients: a media analysis: Brunel University; 2014.
2. Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Novel neurotechnologies: intervening in the brain. 2013.
3. Samuel G. Stop the blame game: scientists, journalists and neuroscience in the public realm. American Journal of Bioethics. 2011;2(4):33-5.
4. Nerlich B, Clarke DD, Dingwall R. Fictions, fantasies, and fears. The literary foundations of the cloning debate. Journal of Literary Semantics. 2001;30:37-52.
5. Seale C. Media and Health London: SAGE; 2003.
6. Caulfield T, Bubela T. Media representations of genetic discoveries: hype in the headlines? Health Law Review. 2004;12(2153-2161).
7. Williams C, Kitzinger J, Henderson L. Envisaging the embryo in stem cell research: rhetorical strategies and media reporting of the ethical debates. Sociology of health & illness. 2003;25(7):793-814.
8. Bubela T, Nisbet MC, Borchelt R, Brunger F, Critchley C, Einsiedel E, et al. Science communication reconsidered. Nature biotechnology. 2009;27(6):514-8.
9. Samuel G, Kitzinger J. Reporting consciousness in coma: media framing of neuro-scientific research, hope, and the response of families with relatives in vegetative and minimally conscious states. JOMEC journal. 2013;3(June).

Competing interests: No competing interests

16 December 2014
Gabrielle, N. Samuel
Research Fellow
Clare Williams, Dept of Social Sciences, Media & Communications, Brunel Univeristy, London, UK
Our work is part of a Wellcome Trust Biomedical Ethics Grant
Health Economics Research Group, Brunel Univeristy, London, UK