Communicating Health Science News

Dec 24, 2014

By Steven Novella

A recent study addresses the problem of sensationalism in the communication of science news, an issue we deal with on a regular basis. The study was titled “The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study“. The results show two interesting things – that university press releases frequently overhype the results of studies, and that this has a dramatic effect on overall reporting about the research.

The authors reviewed “Press releases (n=462) on biomedical and health related science issued by 20 leading UK universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and news stories (n=668).” They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated health advice, 33% overemphasized the causal connection, and 36% exaggerated the ability to extrapolate animal and cell data to humans.”


When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained similar exaggeration, compared with exaggeration rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in news when the press releases were not exaggerated.

This study points a finger directly at academic press offices as a significant source of bad science news reporting. This does not let other links in the news chain off the hook, however.

The problem is worsened by changes over the last decade in the news infrastructure. The internet and changing business models make it difficult for large news outlets to maintain specialist journalists and editors. Therefore science and health news is more frequently being reported by generalist reporters, and not filtered through a dedicated science editor.

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One comment on “Communicating Health Science News”

  • I wonder if anyone would read science news if it wasn’t sensationalist.

    There are multiple components to communications systems. Diminishing the receive power level (effectively by being non-sensationalist) impairs the system performance by reducing the signal to noise ratio. Compensating for low S/N would require multiple retransmissions and error correction redundancy. Possibly that already happens. True and useful information might not be portrayed as prominently, but it might tend to be communicated more frequently and more redundantly. (i.e. more waffle.)

    What might also be happening is that there are multiple tiers in science news. This seems to be more or less normal practice. i.e. Lead with the initial sensationalist PR, but also include links to more careful analysis summaries, and further links to source material and pro and con discussion about the context. Which is exactly what recent changes in the news infrastructure have enabled.

    Last week I read a science news headline story feature on Google news (at least on my version of it) which mentioned the discovery of alien spacecraft on the moon, as revealed in photos taken by the Apollo astronauts nearly half a century ago. The article was actually about how dust particles on the lens can create optical illusions of UFOs. Something that might not be credible to digital era people who have never heard of chemical film photography. But I wouldn’t have read it if not for the alien spacecraft connection.

    A potential problem in science is that professional expertise involves focus and extreme specialisation. Which makes it difficult to stay across other fields. Unfortunately reality isn’t confined to specific academic sub-disciplines. So there needs to be a possibility of random information input from other areas. Which means that useful new information, otherwise apparently irrelevant, needs to be sensational to cut through attention barriers.

    I’m not sure I understand the real problem with this. Most people who read that someone has just published some initial research or has just graduated with a degree in biology or medicine can form their own conclusions about whether or not this has implications for an impending cure for Alzheimers and cancer. Maybe journalists or editors should state their credentials when producing or distributing other’s press releases. E.g. Official disclaimer “Caveat Emptor: This ‘scientific’ article was produced by a journalist who has not been trained in science and who also has no comprehension of logic, maths, the nature of science, or common sense.” That way they can have their cake and eat it: be sensationalist enough to attract attention, but not to raise expectations too highly. When the word journalist or editor or PR or ‘communications’ appears in anyone’s job description then the above disclaimer might already be a reasonable implicit assumption.

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