June 24, 2015, by Andrew Gibson

Journalist tells scientists to take control of PR (Adam Smith @CirclingTheSquare2)

Researchers should not allow their colleagues in the university press office to dictate the terms of how their institution engages with the media, according to a former Guardian journalist.

Leo Hickman, the newspaper’s former environment reporter, said he is surprised by how often scientists don’t see the final version of a press release about their paper before it is sent to journalists. Hickman is now editor of Carbon Brief, a news website covering climate change.

“My plea to scientists is that they should, internally in the university, take back control of this process,” Hickman told delegates at a conference on science and society at the University of Nottingham on 22 June. “They shouldn’t let the press department dictate terms.”

Hickman said that a scientist who is the author or co-author on a paper should sign off the press release. “Then they can’t have cause for complaint afterwards,” he explained.

There is mounting concern among some scientists and journalists that press offices are responsible for hyping scientific findings in order to receive prominent media coverage. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2014 found that exaggeration of research results in university press releases is often followed by further exaggeration in subsequent media reports.

Led by Petroc Sumner of Cardiff University, the study found that 36 per cent of 462 press releases from 20 UK universities published in 2011 made exaggerated claims about the medical relevance of research conducted in animals, and that when such exaggeration took place, 86 per cent of media reports contained similar exaggeration, as opposed to 10 per cent when the press releases were more realistic.

Speaking at the same conference as Hickman on 22 June, Mike Schäfer, a researcher on science and the media at the University of Zurich, said: “Science communication has expanded and professionalised, and science journalism is in crisis.”

Schäfer said that news organisations’ revenues are declining and that many science news desks have closed, putting more and more pressure on the remaining journalists. A journalist may have only two hours or less to write and publish a story online, said Hickman. “Mail Online journalists have to do eight stories in an eight-hour shift,” he said, “so they fall back on the press release.”

A press officer for a unit funded by the Medical Research Council said that he believes press officers should develop closer relationships with scientists in order to produce more accurate press releases. “It’s up to press officers to facilitate this,” he said.

However, Hickman said that scientists are increasingly circumventing press officers through social media. “One of the positive things I’ve noted in the last three to four years is scientists using Twitter,” he said, adding that this helps them to “bring back” a more accurate version of a research project’s finding after the “press release has made a hash of it”.

The speakers also discussed the extent to which the media informs people about complex scientific and political matters such as climate change. Schäfer said that the increasing digitisation of media distribution and consumption meant that people who curate their own content can avoid topics they don’t want to be consumed. He said that, for example, Facebook shows users what news their friends have seen and liked. “This influences how people view things online,” he said.


This article was originally published here on ResearchProfessional.com for subscribers.

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