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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