July 1, 2022

Don’t shoot the messenger

Should we always blame the journalist for poor science reporting? Perhaps not, according to a new BMJ study.

Should we always blame the journalist for poor science reporting? Perhaps not, according to a recent paper published in the British Medical Journal.

The article, written by a team from Australian and British Universities, found a direct correlation between ‘exaggeration’ in academic press releases and overstatements in popular media.

The stated aim of the study was to examine ‘the association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases’. Researchers analysed over 400 press releases produced by UK Universities, as well as 600 associated news articles, for ‘exaggeration’ (defined as claims going beyond those in the peer reviewed paper).

The researchers found a direct correlation between exaggeration in academic press releases and journalistic exaggeration. The majority of news articles made ‘exaggerations’ when they were based on press releases that gave health advice to readers that didn’t follow from the study; made unjustified ‘causal claims’; or made inferences about humans from studies concerned with other animals.

In contrast, only 10-18% of media reports contained ‘exaggerations’ when based on ‘objective’ press releases.

In an editorial on the study, Dr. Ben Goldacre – a researcher fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – suggested that there is a need to achieve more accountability for poorly written scientific press releases. “All academic press releases should have named authors, including both the press officers involved and the individual named academics from the original academic paper.” He also called for press releases to be “treated as a part of the scientific publication, linked to the paper, referenced directly from the academic paper being promoted, and presented through existing infrastructure as online data appendices, in full view of peers.”

Poor press releases to blame for exaggeration in scientific journalism
Xavier Symons
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Creative commons
conflict of interest
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