Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Forget Fake News: Is PR Hype the Big Problem in Science?

By Lyndal Byford

The problem of over-hyped science news is undermining public trust in science.

A media release screams “blockbuster, a world first breakthrough” and even comes with the word “cure” tantalisingly dangled, ready for a time-poor journalist to grab hold of.

An editor demands the story goes online before anyone else gets the scoop. For the busy journalist, unused to covering science, it can be incredibly difficult to be a lone voice when the rest of the media pack are following the line.

It is a formula I see repeated across the news pages on a regular basis, and it’s too easy to place the blame with busy journalists for over-egging research claims. But every step in the pathway from research to reader plays a role in providing accuracy and balance, and journalists are not the only ones to blame for science hype. Sometimes they are just passing it on.

More than a decade ago, Australasian Science reported that almost half of the news releases posted on the science press website EurekAlert! were labelled as a “breakthrough” (https://goo.gl/fMHxL2). Little has changed since then. Exaggeration in news can still be traced back to exaggeration in media releases, with a 2014 study of hype in media releases (https://goo.gl/2SDGSe) showing more than one-third continue to contain overstated claims.

This is a global phenomenon, and I see words like “breakthrough” and “ground-breaking” used regularly in releases from Australian institutions, sometimes with good cause but often without. Mouse studies are often described as if they have been done in humans, and correlation can be exaggerated until they sound like causation.

It’s tempting for anyone who works with journalists to spin just a little, and over time I’ve realised that even I am not immune. At the Australian Science Media Centre we regularly walk the tightrope between getting journalists excited and overplaying a result. I’m sure that sometimes we too fall down.

With so few specialist science reporters in Australia, anyone pitching to the media needs to catch the eye of a journalist who could just as easily cover a Kardashian as a Dr Karl. Science must compete for eyeballs and column inches with politics, crime, sport, entertainment and lifestyle news.

Researchers themselves are also playing a part. A University of Sydney review (https://goo.gl/ahJsrY) of 35 studies looking at spin in published biomedical research showed that anywhere from 26% to 84% of papers contained some form of spin.

Scientists are also increasingly being asked not just to publish their work, but to show the “impact” as well. I love that scientists are being encouraged to engage beyond the ivory tower, but it’s also possible that the need for impact is adding to the temptation to overstate results.

The cynic in me can see how an oversold story can generate clicks that can then translate into research funding. But set against the current background of declining trust in institutions, hype does seem like a bit of an own goal. The UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences recently found that only around one-third of the public trusts evidence from medical research. The figure is a stark reminder for anyone communicating scientific research. We need to lift our game.

Australasian Science has previously argued for improved science reporting standards (https://goo.gl/tmzBsX). A step in the right direction is a simple labelling system for media releases developed by the UK Science Media Centre (https://goo.gl/jJNkKB). The system gives media releases clear labels that categorise the evidence according to whether it is has been peer-reviewed, what type of study it is and, when relevant, if it’s been conducted in a dish, on animals or on people.

As a voluntary system it is up to media teams to determine which of the labels apply, discussing it with the researchers where needed. The system has already been taken up by at least five journals, five charities and 20 universities in the UK since its launch in June.

Anecdotally it appears it might already be having an impact. The Lancet’s Head of Media and Communications, Seil Collins, was recently reported as saying that it made her think more carefully about methodology when writing the press releases, and to be more cautious with her claims (https://goo.gl/tA6P1q).

I’d love to see it embraced here, too, and am eagerly waiting to see what the impact in the UK has been.

The labels aren’t a complete fix. They are more difficult for busy journalists to understand than a simple traffic light system might have been, but no media team in their right mind would be keen to give their work a red light.

I think the balance may be about right. As one retired science journalist described the labels, they are “chicken soup”: they might not cure our love of hype, but they can’t hurt.


Lyndal Byford is the Director of News and Partnerships at The Australian Science Media Centre.