Bad science reporting blamed on exaggerations in university press releases

Study finds science journalists are not always to blame for the hype

Steve Connor
Wednesday 10 December 2014 01:00 GMT
The study found that 40 per cent of press releases contained exaggerated health advice
The study found that 40 per cent of press releases contained exaggerated health advice

Press releases written by academic institutions with the help of their own academics contain many of the exaggerated claims about health and medical science that end up in newspaper reports, a study has found.

Although scientists are most likely to blame journalists more than any other source for hyping research results, it is in often their own university press office where the hype began, the findings suggest.

In an attempt to sort out fact from exaggeration, researchers analysed 462 press releases issued by 20 leading British universities in 2011 to see how the claims matched up to the original scientific paper they were designed to publicise.

The researchers also analysed the corresponding press coverage to see how often the exaggerated claims in press releases made it into any of 12 major news outlets, including the main national newspaper broadsheets and tabloids, BBC online and the Reuters news agency.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), divided claims into three types of “inflation”: those that gave direct advice to readers when none was suggested in the original research paper; those that exaggerated cause-and-effect when the link was only an association; and those suggesting that the findings were applicable to humans when in fact the study was only done on animals.

They found that 40 per cent of press releases contained exaggerated health advice, 33 per cent contained exaggerated claims about cause-and-effect, and 36 per cent contained exaggerated inferences to humans from research on animals, compared with the corresponding peer-reviewed journal articles.

“Although it is common to blame media outlets and their journalists for news perceived as exaggerated, sensationalised, or alarmist, our principle findings were that most of the inflation detected in our study did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text of the press release produced by academics and their establishments,” the researchers write in the BMJ.

To their surprise, the researchers also found that an exaggerated press release did not have a greater chance of media coverage and they failed to find that caveats in a press release – which were rare and included in only about one in 10 releases – decreased the chances of a study being covered by a news outlet.

“Changes in presentation style between peer-reviewed papers and press releases are expected in order to spark the interest of journalists. But seeking simplification and stimulating interest does not justify exaggeration,” the researchers said.

Professor Petroc Sumner of Cardiff University, the lead author of the study, said that university press offices have to perform the difficult job of promoting new findings and the scientists involved, but this should be no excuse for exaggeration and hype.

“We probably have to accept there will have to be a balance. A newspaper readership is not going to be interested in the dry articles published in an academic journal,” Professor Sumner said.

“Some exaggeration will creep in and we’re not going to blame the press offices for doing their job. A lot of academics don’t engage with a press release,” he said.

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