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A scientist’s opinion: interview with Maike Winters on hype in press releases

ESMH Maike Winters interview: News reporter or TV journalist at press conference, holding microphone and writing notes

Interview with Maike Winters from the Karolinska Institute.

Press releases are clearly shorter than the studies they describe. What is wrong with leaving out some aspects of studies?

Maike Winters: We saw that studies’ limitations, funding sources and conflicts of interest are frequently omitted from press releases. But they are needed to convey a complete picture of the study. If you look at the entire flow of information from study to press release to news story, then more and more information gets omitted at each step. Eventually, it changes the way the study is framed, which can lead to a different interpretation than its authors initially had in mind.

And these are not the only issues you found with the press releases you analysed, are they?

Maike Winters: Some of the core information is definitely present in most press releases, for example, the study’s main findings. Most of them start with this information. But the distinction between the independent and the dependent variables, which is also core information, is often not made correctly, if it is even mentioned. On top of that, the associations between independent and dependent variables often get distorted in press releases. This makes it all the more likely that the wrong conclusions will be drawn and then passed on to news stories.

When you say distorted associations, does that mean confusing correlation with causality?

Maike Winters: Yes, indeed. You can tell a lot about that by looking at the study design. For example, survey studies record a single point in time. By definition, you cannot draw causal conclusions from that design. Causality needs a ‘before’ and ‘after’ state. If the study’s design limitations are omitted in the press release, and they often are, then what was originally shown in the study as merely a link often ends up as a causal statement akin to ‘A causes B’ in the news story. That is a loss of accuracy.

How does this happen?

Maike Winters: You have to look at this from the press officer’s point of view. For them, a press release is literally PR. It is branding. Their goal is to increase their institution’s visibility and possibly attract new funding sources, so there is this natural inclination to highlight positive aspects and leave out others. That is part of their job, and it is perfectly fine as long as they are accurate. What we need is to raise awareness among press officers and remind them that their press releases have a significant influence on journalists and what ends up in the newspapers. It is important to say that they share this responsibility with journalists who, ideally, should be careful and contextualise the information from press releases. They should never just copy-paste from press releases. Alas, that is what sometimes happens.

Do press releases that mention study limitations and downsides actually get less media coverage?

Maike Winters: No. There is this lingering fear that journalists might be less interested when press releases point out caveats and study limitations, but a number of studies have shown that this is not the case. On the contrary, the more accurate press releases are, the more credible they are. We have strong indications that this effect does not hamper media uptake at all. Of course a sensationalist framing will have an advantage, but press releases need to say all there is to say about a study. We can do both.

Speaking of sensationalism, some study findings are just hard to sell, aren’t they?

Maike Winters: The large majority of scientific results do not qualify as what the public would perceive in sensationalist terms as ‘groundbreaking’. In most cases, a single study does not revolutionise an entire scientific discipline. But all press releases are about single publications. What counts is the broader body of knowledge to which that single publication adds, and what we can learn from that addition to further build on it. In order to get a complete picture, we need context, but that is not something press releases deliver. As a consequence, the resulting news stories also often lack context.

And not everybody interprets ‘groundbreaking’ in the same way, do they?

Maike Winters: Exactly. Mostly, the term is an exaggeration. Adding a word like ‘groundbreaking’ raises unrealistic hopes. A new experimental treatment that has an effect on tumours in laboratory mice is good news, but it does not imply that the study is groundbreaking, nor that there will be a ‘cure for cancer’ any time soon. Such studies are still important contributions to their fields, but that does not translate to the term ‘groundbreaking’ in the way the general public perceives it.

Were you the first to investigate hype words in press releases?

Maike Winters: Most certainly not. Actually, ‘first’ is another typical hype word. You will often read the claim that something is the first investigation into an issue, or that the university that conducted a certain study was the first to do so. That is usually not the case. The scientific body of knowledge is enormous and the chances are that very few studies are actually the first to find something. Employing these terms is at odds with science itself: journalistic news values are very different from scientific values.

How could press officers move closer to the science side?

Maike Winters: In our study, we outlined twelve scientific measures that press officers can readily use as a checklist while writing press releases. The most important questions to ask yourself are: have I included the main aim of the study? Have I included the independent and dependent variables and explained how they are associated? And have I quantified and contextualised the results? That covers most of the accuracy-related issues.

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