Bad science reporting: how to avoid exaggerating your research

Posted by ap507 at Jan 13, 2015 04:30 PM |
British Medical Journal paper highlights the importance of good science reporting in press releases

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal identifies how exaggerated reporting of science stories by journalists can start with the initial press release issued by an academic institution's press office.

The study suggests that hyperbole often exists in press releases issued by university press releases before a journalist receives it and advises press offices and academics to work together to avoid exaggeration before issuing press releases.

The findings of the study have sparked a debate about overstating research in biomedical science press releases. Mark Henderson, Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust and former Science Editor of The Times newspaper, wrote an article offering advice on how to effectively write scientific press releases while avoiding exaggeration and misleading an audience.

Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the UK Science Media Centre – of which the University is a supporter - wrote a blog about the importance of research that exposes the role that press officers play in the media coverage of science and the importance of working together with journalists and academics to publicise scientific research in a responsible way. 

Writers for the Guardian weighed in on the issue, contemplating who should be held accountable when journalism of this nature occurs, suggesting that researchers, press offices and reporters should all take care to avoid hyperbole.

The Independent, meanwhile, examined the findings of the study which suggest that exaggeration of press releases does not equate to greater media coverage.

President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester Professor Paul Boyle said: “The academic community has been grappling with the issue of research 'reproducibility’, for some time, as it is important that results are reliable and replicable.

"Given the increasing interest in the broad impacts of research, not least through the new emphasis in the most recent REF exercise, it is essential that the validity of claimed or potential research impacts is robust.

"There is therefore a duty on academics, press offices and the media alike to represent research as accurately as possible, especially as social media and other forms of communication mean that findings can circulate widely and rapidly."

Dos and don’ts of science reporting:

Dos:

+ Remain accurate and faithful to the study when simplifying research

+ Write the story in a way that members of the public/people outside of the field can understand

+ Talk about the relevance of your work to the outside world, in much the same way as you would with a REF impact statement

+ Have realistic expectations about which audiences may be receptive to your research

+ Let us know if there is anything notable or topical related to your research that we may have overlooked

+ Understand that the University cannot control how your research is publicised by journalists, highlighting the importance of issuing accurate press releases

Don’ts:

- Mislead the public or make sensationalist claims

- Exaggerate the impact of your research

- Infer things that cannot be supported by evidence

- Expect every research paper to be of national significance. Some may be more suited to local audiences or to the scientific community

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