Exaggeration of science in the press: where does the blame lie?

Exaggeration of science in the press: where does the blame lie?

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What do the three headlines above all have in common? As far as scientists are concerned, they share an sensationalism that probably does not represent the findings of the original study. Such exaggeration is troubling, but also relatively common. Indeed, media reporting of scientific discoveries is a veritable minefield of sensationalism and exaggeration. The results and characteristics of studies can often be exaggerated to give the findings greater significance. The press themselves often take the blame for this. It is often assumed that they simply haven’t read the papers produced by those who ran the study, or simply lack the ability to interpret them. However, a recent analysis by a group from the University of Cardiff suggests that it may not be that simple.

As a sample to assess where exaggeration in science news came from, this study compare 442 biomedical press releases – summations of a group’s research that are commonly produced by dedicated press officers for the press, in correspondence with researchers – and their associated peer-reviewed research papers.

An important question to consider when analysing reporting of science is just why does it have to be accurate? Particularly in health related news, the reporting of these studies can have a direct impact on the way an ageing population, that is more and more aware of its own health, behaves. Furthermore, mis-reporting of science naturally leads to distrust and disillusionment from the public.

For example, this study would find a piece of science reporting that claimed researchers had found that chocolate prevents cancer and then find the research paper and the academic press release associated with that study. Those running this analysis would then determine if there was any exaggeration in the news piece and where this exaggeration came from – was it a result of journalists or was it already present in the academic press releases provided to them?

This group looked at three major areas of potential exaggeration: extent of advice for readers, causal statements and conclusions from non-human studies. The difference in these areas between news pieces and press releases, in comparison to the original journal article, would highlight just where that exaggeration occurred.

The main findings of the study are summarised below:

The main findings of the study by Sumner et al. Exaggeration in each of the three categories was detected at similar levels in both press releases and news articles when compared to the peer-reviewed journal article. 95% CI = 95% Confidence Interval (The range of values in which you can say with 95% confidence the true value lies)

Essentially, this group found that exaggeration is found in both the news articles, as to be expected, and the academic press releases when compared to the peer-reviewed journal article. Additionally, when these press releases contained exaggeration, news articles regarding that research were overwhelmingly more likely to contain exaggeration. It was not possible to differentiate between the exaggeration found in both press releases and news articles, so it isn’t clear which source provides the most. Furthermore, it is not possible to infer causality: there was no significant evidence to suggest that including exaggerated claims in a press release was any more likely to see your research covered in the news.

So how might these findings change the current opinions people hold? Firstly, they suggest that journalists may not solely be to blame for exaggerated news pieces. They found that in the majority of cases where exaggeration was found in the news, exaggeration was also present in the associated press releases. Should press officers therefore take more of the blame? It would be unfair to go to such lengths as this as, like science journalists, they may be non-scientists or reporting on fields in which they are not specialists. Press officers, in the majority of cases, must also liaise with researchers who sign off on the report before it is released. Could the researchers themselves therefore be to blame?

What is probably a more reasonable suggestion is that the culture of the scientific and journalistic working environments is responsible for producing this problem. Journalists are under more pressure than ever to produce more and more articles for a society that has become accustomed to absorbing more information in more ways than ever. Additionally, the competition among scientists is extreme with a huge emphasis on the impact of their work and funding harder and harder to come by.

Studies such as this will not aid us in pinning down blame to a specific group of people, but rather will allow us to gain an appreciation for the working environments that generate such exaggerated stories. Researchers and journalists alike, however, must be aware of the consequences of sensationalism and exaggeration in alienating the public from science.

The original paper by Sumner et al. can be found here

‘Til next time…



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