The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study

Implications for practice

It is important that these results are not perceived as simply shifting the blame from one group of non-scientists (journalists) to another (press officers). Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists20 (and confirmed in our survey, see supplementary section SI12), and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors. At the other end of the chain, journalists have a continuing responsibility to cross check their sources even if their working conditions make that increasingly difficult. The blame—if it can be meaningfully apportioned—lies mainly with the increasing culture of university competition and self promotion, interacting with the increasing pressures on journalists to do more with less time. It is interesting in this context that news outlets were broadly similar in the degree of exaggeration between press release and news (see supplementary section SI13).

Our findings may seem like bad news but we prefer to view them positively: if the majority of exaggeration occurs within academic establishments, then the academic community has the opportunity to make an important difference to the quality of biomedical and health related news. Arguably it would be far more difficult to change the working practices and cultures of journalists at independent news organisations. Furthermore, we are not arguing that accurate (or appropriately cautious) claims are sufficient for the public readership to make well informed choices in health related issues (that is, the discredited information deficit model).19 The potential influence of the media on the opinion and behaviour of different publics is complex and other factors are involved.1 5 6 What we do argue is that appropriate claims are a necessary starting point, that misleading claims can do harm, and that since many such claims originate within universities, the scientific community has the ability to improve this situation.

What is already known on this topic

  • Health related news has widespread potential to influence health related behavior but often misreports the science

  • It is not known whether exaggerations originate in the news stories themselves or in press releases issued by academic institutions producing the research

What this study adds

  • Most exaggeration in health related science news was already present in academic press releases

  • Exaggeration was not significantly associated with increased news coverage, relative to press releases without overstatement

  • Press releases could be a primary target to improve the accuracy of science news, with potential benefit for public health

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7015

Footnotes

  • We thank our professional advisory group for input into this research, including Rob Dawson (BBSRC), Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre), Ruth Francis (Biomed Central), James Gallagher (BBC), Helen Jamison (Science Media Centre), Alok Jha (The Guardian), Emma Little (The Sun), Carmel Turner (Medical Research Council), Bob Ward (Grantham Institute), and Ed Yong (National Geographic); Ananyo Bhattacharya and Simon Dymond for helpful discussions; and Eleanor-Rose Corney and Caitlin Argument for research assistance.

  • Contributors: PS, CDC, AW, JB, and FB conceived and planned the research. SV-G, AD, JO, LW, BH, and BD carried out the research, supervised by PS and CDC and funded by grants awarded to PS and CDC. SV-G, PS, CDC, CAV, and JB analysed and presented the data. PS, CDC, JB, and AW wrote the paper. PS, CDC, JB, and CAV revised the paper. PS and CDC contributed equally to this work and are the guarantors.

  • Funding: This study was supported by grants from the British Psychological Society, Experimental Psychology Society, Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, the Wellcome Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and Cardiff University.

  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf[7] (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare that: the study was supported by grants from the British Psychological Society, Experimental Psychology Society, Wales Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, the Wellcome Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and Cardiff University; no financial relationships with any organisations, except universities, that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; their spouses, partners, or children have no financial relationships that may be relevant to the submitted work; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Data sharing: All coding sheets (n=462), full instructions for coding, summary data files, and analysis programs are available online (http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.903704[8]).

  • Transparency: The lead authors (PS and CDC) affirm that the manuscript is an honest, accurate, and transparent account of the study being reported; that no important aspects of the study have been omitted; and that any discrepancies from the study as planned have been explained.

This is an Open Access article distributed in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon this work, for commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited. See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/[9].

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  2. ^ http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.903704 (dx.doi.org)
  3. ^ http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.903704 (dx.doi.org)
  4. ^ (www.bmj.com)
  5. ^ (www.bmj.com)
  6. ^ (www.bmj.com)
  7. ^ www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (www.icmje.org)
  8. ^ http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.903704 (dx.doi.org)
  9. ^ http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ (creativecommons.org)
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