Press Offices Gone Wild

When you see a headline touting exaggerated or unsupported claims, it’s easy to blame the media. While media can be one part of the problem, there are other parts of the process in play. Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far beyond the hallowed halls of academic institutions.

Press offices, we are looking at you.bad-science-press-releases

At first glance, they may seem like a clear cut way to disseminate materials. But not all press offices share the same approach to communication. Some press offices have evolved to match the current media environment, spawning sensationalist releases. It’s especially troublesome for us in science communications. Why? Poor translation of science in the press office can lead to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of inaccurate stories.

The scientific community is getting fed up. Dr. Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida, weighed in. Dr. Folta highlighted that “it is really unfortunate that non-scientists who are excited to sensationalize an issue distort legitimate science.” Dr. Folta outlined a recent example of this problem:

Recently a paper was written where the title described experiments to test whether a popular agricultural chemical was an endocrine disruptor. The researchers did the tests, and found no evidence that it was [a disruptor]. However, reading the title alone, websites exploded with the news of a reputable report, in a reputable journal, performed by reputable researchers, supposed showing that this chemical was an endocrine disruptor. Anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith went on the television show ‘The Doctors’ and said that this study demonstrated endocrine disruption.  The internet exploded with memes and statements, even attaching the researcher’s name to them. I sent her a note. She was blown away. A simple project that was intended to help a student publish her small research project was twisted into a political pawn.

A recent study published in Neuron gave us a classic example of an over-promoting press office. The study title is “Nutrient Sensor in the Brain Directs the Action of the Brain-Gut Axis in Drosophila.” The researchers found a relationship between fly genetics and how flies selected among different sweeteners. While valuable, the findings made no claims about applicability to human health. The institution’s press office, however, made a huge leap. The press release made the highly dubious claim that the results can be directly taken to understand the human feeling of fullness.  This application of the study’s data is incredibly misleading. This press release is a perfect example of how a single marketer can exaggerate scientific results way beyond their original intent. (It’s also worth noting that the full study is available only to those with subscriptions to the journal or an academic database. Other than a short abstract, the only thing you can read for free is the misleading press release.)

We’ve talked about how junk science and bad reporting negatively impact science communications. But it's important to remember that other third-party groups have a major influence. Science passes through a lot of hands before it gets to our eyes. So proceed with caution when reading press releases, especially those that seem too good to be true. Always go back to the source!