Sensationalizing scientific findings doesn’t drive more news coverage

August 12, 2019

In July 2011, a team of scientists at Cardiff University published a study finding that people whose prefrontal cortices contain lower levels of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter, also tend to have an impulsive personality. As is routine for published research, a university press officer wrote up the findings in a punchy press release and sent it out to journalists. 

The researchers were surprised to see their work cited in national news a few weeks later. A police shooting had prompted riots in London and across England, and the  press coverage latched onto the study. A wire story by the UK’s Press Association, now PA Media, declared, “Brain chemical lack ‘spurs rioting’”—an unfounded claim. The Sun reported, falsely, that the researchers were developing a “nose spray to stop drunks and brawls.” (The Sun retracted its article after the researchers filed a formal complaint.) The Daily Mail published two articles connecting the riots to the GABA research. The first stated, “Rioters have ‘lower levels’ of brain chemical that keeps impulsive behaviour under control.” The second, an op-ed, included a misleading caption: “Do rioters, pictured looting a shop in Hackney, have lower levels of a brain chemical that helps keep behaviour under control? Scientists think so.” The Daily Mail issued a correction for the first article, clarifying that the GABA study makes no mention of rioting; the op-ed remains unchanged. The reported links between GABA and the riots found an international audience; blog posts and articles cropped up in India, Russia, and Malaysia, among other places.

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Petroc Sumner, the lead author on the study, says that journalists made a series of inaccurate connections between “impulsivity,” the word used by the researchers, “and therefore controlling your behavior, and therefore, rioting.” Sumner adds that his team did not receive requests for interviews about their findings. 

“You can write to the journalists and they can say, ‘Yes, sure, OK, we understand your point of view, and we’ll correct the headline.’ But by the time it’s gone around the world, you can’t pull it back,” Sumner says. 

Journalists don’t have a huge amount of time to change content from the press release, so there’s a lot of regurgitation. Whatever you put in it is going to be put in the news.

With Christoper Chambers, a fellow neuroscientist, Sumner co-authored a critical response for The Guardian about the press’s distortion of the study. Chambers and Sumner then set out to determine where the distortion came from. Did news stories deliberately introduce “distortions, exaggerations, or changes” to scientific findings, or did editorial coverage pick up inaccuracies from somewhere else? Their study, published in 2014, found that exaggeration in science news related to health was already present before journalists wrote their stories—it was in academic press releases. And most journalists rely entirely on the press releases for information, rather than reading the studies.

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“Journalists don’t have a huge amount of time to change content from the press release, so there’s a lot of regurgitation,” Chambers says. “Whatever you put in it is going to be put in the news. That, in my opinion, deepens the responsibility of the scientists and press officers to make sure they get it right and don’t exaggerate on the press release.”

In May, a second study elaborating on Sumner and Chambers’ work was published. It is led by Rachel Adams, a postdoctoral researcher at the time, with a team of Cardiff University researchers. The team altered the text of new press releases to varying degrees of accuracy to journalists—Chambers emphasizes that researchers “never reduced the accuracy, only increased it”—then examined how subsequent headlines and news coverage were influenced. 

Their findings should temper some of journalism’s baser instincts: more accurate press releases were associated with more accurate news headlines. Perhaps more importantly, sensational or inaccurate press releases did not necessarily generate more interest from news outlets. 

Adams hopes that these results will disincentivize researchers and universities from overhyping their scientific press releases. “I think it’s really important that we can portray a more accurate story to the public without having any reduced uptake,” Adams says. While she understands the pressures on headline writers and editors, it’s critical that they not compromise accuracy for an eye-grabbing headline.

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Natalie Pattillo is a multimedia journalist based in New York City.