When we applied to the MSc in Science Communication, we were asked to write an analysis of a newspaper science story. I spent a fun afternoon trawling through the press for the worst possible piece of science communication (with the rather unpleasant logic that it’s easier to criticise than applaud). I found a howler of an article; scientific sensationalism at its worst. The piece was based on genuinely interesting physics: a new satellite being put into orbit, to help us understand solar weather. But it was popularised by dragging out a tenuous link to the Olympics, using the idea that powerful solar storms could disrupt TV coverage. With a little more research, I was able to track down the source of the offending article, which had been copied almost word-for-word from a press release.
To say I was surprised was an understatement. I had thought that the role of a press officer was to make sure that the science was presented in a clear, understandable way, so that journalists could get to the heart of the story. Even after a few months on the course, I can see how naïve that was: as much as portraying research accurately, the press officer has a duty to get their science into the press. Though at first I was appalled, after a bit of thinking I started to wonder if it was such a bad thing. After all, how many people would have known anything about that relatively obscure satellite without the Olympics hook to make them read the article?
Gaining media coverage by bending the truth may not always be a bad thing. But it can lead to more media savvy areas of research gaining disproportionate public exposure. This can lead to a cycle in which research institutions with more money receive more public attention, who then gain more money and so on. This becomes worrying when research is funded by wealthy industries. I’d be concerned if oil-funded climate research got more attention simply because they funded more press officers. Greenpeace have accused Koch industries, one of the world’s biggest oil companies, of funnelling nearly £50 million to climate change denial groups, many of whom produce anti-climate change propaganda and dubious ‘research’. Academics have explored the way that ‘journalistic norms’, such as making a story personal, dramatic and novel, influence the reporting and uptake of climate change stories. The climate change skeptic lobby has proven itself to be more adept at conforming to these norms, with a worrying impact on public opinion of climate change.
As time pressures and work loads mount on journalists, science reporters are often faced with the choice between churning out five articles in a morning based on press releases, or spending a day following a hunch (which may well turn out to be a dead end). Likewise, trawling through the latest climate journal and understanding detailed figures takes time; reading a pre-prepared press release is far quicker. A recent study by the Cardiff School of Journalism found as many as one in five reporters felt that they didn’t have time to sufficiently fact-check articles, and all say that press releases are the starting point to most of their articles. But in a world where the number and influence of press releases is determined by your budget, this is a worrying trend.
Bryony Frost is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College, London.