Monday 6 February 2012

Dodgy science headlines: PR can share the blame

Two weeks ago I was called to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. It was a nerve-wracking ordeal but also an incredible opportunity to say what needs fixing in our newsrooms to improve the quality of science coverage. Despite telling me to slow down no fewer than four times, Lord Justice Leveson summed up my breathless evidence by suggesting that it appeared to him that there is not too much to fix. This conclusion is bound to exasperate some observers, but I was relieved that he got my point that we owe a massive debt to the skilful science journalists who convey complex and important science to mass audiences on a daily basis.

Leveson also grasped that my real beef is with the non-specialists in newsrooms who get to make the decisions about what constitutes a good story, where it appears in the paper and under what headline. A lot can go wrong between the accurate copy of a science reporter and these three decisions. Yet it is the overinflated headlines and the front page billing that raise unnecessary fears and hopes, and damage the public interest easily as much as the hacking of celebrity voicemail.

Most of the reactions to my appearance at Leveson were positive but one science reporter pointed out that when Leveson has finished scrutinizing the press, he could do worse than looking at the press officers who collude with the worst instincts of news editors in order to get their institutions’ name in lights.

People know that I am a huge champion of science press officers and it’s the combination of their work and that of great science reporters that creates all that is good about science in the media. But as with our newsrooms there is still stuff to fix. I am not sure if anyone has ever done any research on this but I have a horrible feeling that if we took the worst newspaper headlines and traced back their origins – we may find the press release was to blame in far more cases than any of us would care to admit. We’ve now got to the stage where not only do the best science journalists have to fight the perverse news values of their news editors but also to try to read between the lines of overhyped press releases to get to the truth of what a scientific study is really claiming. Quite right too you might say – it’s their job to see through PR hype – maybe – but no press officer should be proud of the fact that their press release had to be toned down by reporters.

Just days after my evidence to Leveson came one classic example to join the many shockers I have seen over the years. A science journalist called to alert us to a press release about a new study investigating whether silver compounds can be toxic to cancer cells. We do not record the number of calls we get like this but maybe we should start to. The reporter was asking us to get comments from third party experts to help him convince his newsdesk that this press release was overhyping the study being published. Under the heading ‘A silver bullet to beat cancer?’ the top line of the press release stated that ‘Lab tests have shown that it (silver) is as effective as the leading chemotherapy drug – and may have far fewer side effects.’ Far from including any caveats or cautionary notes up front, the press office even inclulded an introductory note claiming that the study 'has confirmed the quack claim that silver has cancer-killing properties’.

It was already fairly late in the day and the story was for immediate release – already bad practice for a press release on a peer reviewed publication, but we managed to get a comment from the wonderful Professor Edzard Ernst which we sent out immediately. It read:

“This is an interesting test-tube experiment demonstrating that various forms of silver can kill cancer cells. While this line of inquiry is certainly worth further study, it would be very premature to draw any conclusion in terms of the treatment of human cancer. A plethora of compounds have similar activity but, for a range of reasons, cannot be used clinically. Any recommendation to use silver in any shape or form to cure cancer patients would, at this stage, be wholly irresponsible.”

The quote confirmed what my colleagues had first thought – that this was a nice piece of inorganic chemistry showing what scientists show all the time – that compounds do interesting things to cancer cells in a petri dish. Last week it was a compound found in tomato sauce, this week it’s silver, next week it will be something else. We should be glad that researchers are testing these compounds and even happier when, as in this case, their studies identify interesting and potentially promising lines of enquiry for future research. But none of us should be glad that these small, lab-based studies are described by anyone as proof that silver is ‘as effective as the leading chemotherapy drug – with fewer side effects’. As Professor Ernst states clearly, any such a leap is ‘irresponsible’.

The next time those of us in the scientific community criticize the ‘the meeja’ we should remember that most of our newspapers did not run this story, despite the opportunity for a great headline. But some of the tabloids ran it with headlines mimicking the top line of the press release, including ‘Silver safer than chemotherapy and just as effective’ and ‘Silver bullet for cancer: Metal can kill some tumours better than chemotherapy with fewer side effects’.

Of course none of us should be na├»ve here. Papers need to be sold and entertaining headlines sell papers. Institutions need profile and name checks. When I was a press officer for an overseas aid agency it was nigh on impossible to get the name checks my bosses wanted in a media that cared little for the developing world. It led to desperate measures. I once commissioned a MORI poll asking the British public if they would prefer the government to mark the millennium by building the dome or cancelling third world debt. No other options were offered. The poll results came in on the very day that Mandelson appointed a 10-year-old boy to decide on parts of the content of the ill-fated dome, a move ridiculed by the media who were kind enough to reference CAFOD’s poll and debt relief campaign in their coverage: bingo! At my leaving do, one of my colleagues at CAFOD told how I reacted to the Policy Team’s decision to award 9 out of 10 to a long-awaited new White Paper on Development. I angrily pointed out that the media would be wall-to-wall Oxfam and Christian Aid unless we brought the marks down to below 5. CAFOD, being CAFOD, refused but the fact that I would do anything to get a name check was not lost on my colleagues.

So I know plenty about dodgy PR and the desperation to get a mention. And I don’t question the motives of the press office for a minute. Their job was to get media coverage for this study and a bland press release stating ‘Small interesting effect noted in petri dish’ was unlikely to deliver. Furthermore, the very same press team kindly cooperated with us when we were scrambling for a copy of the paper and gauging interest in the story - so this blogpost is not intended to single anyone out. But there are things I think we can learn and I do think that science is different to other subjects. Plus, I think within science anything that appears to offer patients real hope of cures and treatments for killer diseases should ring massive alarm bells and be handled with special care. If newspapers and press officers could follow the credo ‘Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence’ we would lose much poor science coverage overnight. I’m not sure we need a Leveson for PR but I do think if we are asking newspapers to clean up their act and stop over-claiming for small provisional studies, we should do the same.


Colin Schultz said...

Hi Fiona,

You're right to point out the tangled web of science communicators that exists to push news from the bench to the broadsheet.

As for your question about whether or not any research exists that tracks where in this process the sensationalism and oversimplification arises, I would kindly point you to this story:

That story describes three recent studies that show how public relations people, and even scientists themselves, play a strong role in creating the distorted views of science that often supper in the media.


F.Stevens said...

We’ve now got to the stage where not only do the best science journalists have to fight the perverse news values of their news editors but also to try to read between the lines of overhyped press releases to get to the truth of what a scientific study is really claiming.

I ask this in all seriousness: wouldn't the best way to understand this be to read the scientific paper itself? Are science journalists really not expected to look at the source material before commenting upon it?

MorningAJ said...

I have a poster on my wall at work (You don't need to know what I do really. Just the fact that I'm reading this blog suggests I'm an 'interested party'.) The poster says: You don't grab headlines by describing embryo stem cell research as an expensive laboratory-based technology of unproven merit guaranteed to lead to many years of frustration punctuated by small flashes of enlightenment.

It's a quote from a former Guardian science writer.

I suspect the point is lost on most of my colleagues.