The study pointed out that few of the press releases “provided access to the full scientific report.” But they failed to add that, in many cases, copyright protections prohibit institutions from providing copies of such papers to the news media. The journals publishing these reports hold fast to their legal right that only they can distribute the papers carried in their journals. Omitting that point casts undue blame on the medical centers.
The researchers also faulted some releases for lacking outside review, but that is rarely, if ever, used on such releases, regardless of the subject. Unlike the inherently slow process of journal publication, the rush of daily journalism can hardly accommodate the time needed for outside review. However, at trustworthy communications offices, press releases endure an editing process that is similar to the ones employed in most newsrooms. One or two editors on staff who are experienced in evaluating research with an eye towards news edit the release. It is then sent to the lead researcher, who is asked to check it for technical accuracy alone, not for any editorial slant. No deans, directors, department chairs, or administrators review the story prior to dissemination. This prevents overt PR intent from affecting the story. That’s how it works at our shop, and at a host of other big-time places.
Interestingly, the Annals of Internal Medicine study reported that at all twenty medical centers, it was the individual researchers who requested that their work be covered in a press release, and that at more than half of the centers, administrators made similar requests. There was no suggestion that qualified science or medical writers on staff were functioning as reporters and seeking out newsworthy stories—the practice routinely followed at most major research universities, nor were there any questions regarding this practice in the script (pdf) the authors used in gathering data.
The study team recommended that academic medical centers simply reduce the number of releases they issue; in particular, the report said, they should avoid reporting work presented at scientific meetings that has not been published.
But doing so would cloak an important part of the way that science is done in academe. It would also impede the ability of knowledgeable journalists to cover research that the public has, in many instances, funded and determine where on a continuum from conjecture to conclusion it lies.
To be fair, some press releases are, in fact, as spotty as the study implies. But doing fewer press releases isn’t the answer. Doing better press releases is.
Equally important is halting the decline in staff jobs for well-trained science journalists, and improving science training for all journalists who want it (to its credit, the Annals of Internal Medicine report acknowledges this and even suggests a few workshops). For instance, reporters should know that human trials are more noteworthy than animal trials; that phase-3 clinical trials overrule phase-1 trials; and that multicenter, randomized, double blind trials with large samples are more reliable than others.
Medical centers should absolutely work to improve research communications and reduce instances of hype. But in the end, The Washington Post’s perspective on the press-release report seems most correct:
“Journalists, read the darned studies!”
If the release conflict with the study’s findings, ignore the release. But either way, get reporting.