From the Chair
On the Tensions Between Scientists, Journalists and Press Officers
Recent discussions about what scientists want from the media culminated in a debate about whether science journalists should read a scientific paper before they report on it. The debate took place on The Guardian’s science blog pages and at the Royal Institution, and afterwards The Guardian’s James Randerson polled his peers to divine their approach to original research. Unsurprisingly a majority of science reporters said they ‘mostly’ read the paper.
One of the comments really stood out and triggered discourse on the Stempra mailing list:
"And there is a lesson here for press officers. One or two of the reporters mentioned the frustration of spending valuable time trying to get hold of the research paper for a story. Why don't all press releases come with the paper attached?"
Should we start to attach papers to press releases we’re sending out? Aside from the fact that some journals won’t allow a mass mailout of this material, journalists say they hate it when we send attachments with our press releases. I asked Randerson what he thought about this: "My preference is that the research paper is easily available direct from the press release. This would ideally be via a link from the release (perhaps password protected or just 'unfindable' on the web). Most journalists prefer not to receive attachments because they tend to clog up inboxes. Worst of all are when the press release itself is an attachment rather than just in the body of the email - that always seems particularly pointless to me but that's a separate issue."
He continued; “it’s great when the paper is available via the press office at the end of the phone/email, but this can induce delays if it’s out of hours or the press office is in a different time zone.” Some of you already provide a password protected or hidden link to the paper, others are looking into it, but this seems to be the best option according to the reporters.
The researchers at the centre of the original discussions, Chris Chambers and Petroc Sumner from Cardiff University, informed me that no one asked for their paper during the misreporting that sparked their Guardian articles about what scientists and science journalists could do better. (For balance, here's the response from Nature’s Ananyo Bhattacharya). This may be because it was picked up by general reporters rather than the science desk, or because the paper wasn’t quickly and easily available. Either way, the lack of checking back to the source may explain some of the misreporting.
Another part of Randerson’s article stands out. He mentions that without the paper a reporter is "at the mercy of press-release hype from overenthusiastic press officers or, worse, from the researchers themselves." And later, "very often the press release does not include all the information you will need for a story, and the paper can contain some hidden gems. Frequently the press release misses the real story."
This got me thinking. One of the things I’d appreciated about the RI debate that followed the discussions on The Guardian’s site was the inclusion of press officers. Fiona Fox was on the panel and it was clear from the setting of the debate that Alok Jha, who organised it, wanted press officers involved.
Why then, is there a mistrust of the material we send to reporters? Some scepticism is healthy; there ought to be tension between ‘us and them’. It’s positive that journalists want go back to the original source material, but are there things we can do to improve our press releases in the first instance? I'd love to know how many of you run the releases past the academics involved, is this routine, haphazard, rare? Do you include caveats to the research as well as the newsline? Where you do this, what is your experience of the resultant reporting?
Chambers told me: "For all of our future press releases, we plan to include specific sections, in bullet-point format, on 'what this study shows' and 'what this study does not show'. We haven't released any of these new-format PRs yet, but one is currently in the pipeline.” Is this something we could all adopt? Do any of you already provide similar sections on your releases? I would love to hear from Stempra’s membership on these issues with a view to holding an event, or creating some best practice guidelines. Please do get in touch.
For further info you may be interested in the following summaries: