Churnalism: Bad for Science?

Totally unrelated & gratuitous photo of kitten to improve readability of this post. (credit: Flickr user Pinguino)

Amongst the science blogs I regularly read, a buzzword of the last year or so is “churnalism” – journalism by press release. A few months ago, the UK’s Media Standards Trust launched a website that can track how much of a news story is directly copied and pasted from a press release. In his recent Guardian article on the topic, Martin Robbins unsurprisingly found this number to be quite high for a number of science stories. But it got me thinking: is churnalism actually bad for science, and how can we make it better?

If newspapers and websites no longer printed press releases quasi-verbatim (or there were no press releases) , there would probably be a lot less coverage of science. That may not be an attractive option. Most press releases are factually reasonably accurate, and on the balance of things, it’s probably better to have bland, slightly one-sided science stories than none at all. Newspapers ad-libbing doesn’t always turn out so well (nudge, wink, Daily Mail). But we can do better.

[NB – It’s also a little late in the game to turn up with concerns about churnalism: a vast section of the media – look at women’s weeklies and monthlies – is basically entirely driven by PR and advertising. This drives me crazy, and after reading these magazines myself for years I now actively avoid them. Tens of thousands of people live by what they read in such magazines without realising that they’re basically just flimsy vehicles for selling stuff – usually by making us feel bad about ourselves. This really matters, yet very few people take a stand against it. But I digress.]

Many media outlets republishing virtually the same text over and over makes for a pretty uninspiring landscape. You could wonder what an entire editorial staff offers that one avid tweeter doesn’t. Adding more links would already add much value, but many news websites don’t really take advantage of the web’s capabilities in that respect. I also like Storify, which allows user to build up new stories from social media coverage of an event or topic. One website, Futurity, bypasses the media altogether and aggregates research news straight from the universities.

Part of the problem with science reporting is that all the parties involved want different things:

1. Scientists preferably want to be left alone to do their work. Usually driven by their own competitive spirit, an OCD-like obsession with details, or a childhood dream of curing disease or looking into space. Don’t like to be told what to do or wear – or what to say to a journalist. Money or celebrity are not common motivators – although some do pretty well on both those fronts. Hate to be misrepresented or ignored, and will want to set the record straight if it happen. Will get out of the lab and engage out to help get the grant money in (and many find it fun and rewarding too)

2. PR officers want their product or client featured in as many places and in the most positive light possible. That’s the case for Justin Bieber’s PR, L’Oréal’s PR, as well as the press officers for the University of Cambridge, Nature, and other bastions of all things Good and Scientific. The cynical view is not to trust press officers any more than estate agents – in reality, good PR is responsible, effective and necessary. It’s necessary particularly in those areas of science that don’t feature sex, dinosaurs, aliens or kittens, yet deserve attention and funding.

3. Media organisations – newspapers, magazines, websites – want to sell their publication and make money. What makes money? Sex, dinosaurs, aliens, kittens – the value given to truth, let alone scientific accuracy, varies greatly. The role of reporters in this is difficult. My experience with journalists (caveat: selection bias) is that they love a good story, enjoy writing, and they’re keen to dig it out, get it right. But they’re not always in control of what gets published, or indeed of their own assignments. They sometimes get squeezed in the middle and generally take crap from all around.

4. Readers want to be entertained by sex, aliens, dinosaurs and kittens on their way to work. Will make important life decisions based on things they read in “trusted” publications, including (/particularly?) those that values teenage nudity over accuracy.

These four different players have different expectations from science coverage in the media: responsible and thoughtful reporting of scientific progress, favourable coverage for a journal or institute, selling newspapers, and pleasant reading material for the commute. So it’s no surprise that the current model doesn’t work for everyone.

It’s worth noting that not everyone balks at churnalism: for the PR professionals who wrote the press release, it’s a big sign of success. They love it.

From a science point of view, press releases tend to lack perspective, balance and background at best. They focus on the contributions of one institute, one telescope, or one paper – in most cases this doesn’t tell the full story. With science playing a big role in important societal issues, such as climate change and public health, the science community is sensitive to bad or incomplete reporting of its work. But how to make things better?

Part of the problem seems to be the distance between the parties involved. Most scientists don’t regularly interact with the media, or with PR officers – if anything they’re more likely to interact with students, perhaps schools, local science clubs or charities. Scientists will only talk to PRs on the few occasions in their careers when a press release is issued about their work, and even more rarely to journalists themselves. Every scientist has their own “one time” media story, and their experience is often negative.

In my experience, web-based social media platforms are an ideal place for bringing scientists and the media closer together, without the press office as middle(wo)man. That’s a reason I like ResearchBlogging: it brings together the things that scientists themselves are saying about what’s going on in their field. Twitter fulfills a similar function: following science writers and journalists has given me a better insight into how the news cycle works and into the background of science writing. Via twitter it’s easy to see how news propagates and how stories are covered in different ways. Several excellent professional science journalists and writers are active tweeters.

For those scientists who don’t blog or tweet and don’t want to, press officers are the ideal mediators between them and the world of media. This relationship needn’t be as strained as it often seems to be. But I’ve never seen any concerted efforts made on behalf of either press offices or department heads to build an active and interactive relationship (unless a member of scientific staff also acts as press officer). Why is that?

In the same way as some institutes have “research speed-dating” sessions to encourage cross-pollination between disciplines, why not have meet ‘n’ greet sessions between the science and publicity departments? I see it happening in informally organised tweetups and events like Science Online – why not formalise these types of events within institutions? It seems to me that the better these people get to know each other, the better they may interact when there’s a great new result to publicize.

Press officers learning about science in progress has the potential to encourage a different kind of reporting, that goes deeper than the traditional “paper of the week” soundbite. Alice Bell has nicely described an “upstream” model of science writing: as it happens, rather than just at publication. Scientists being open about their work and willing to discuss it is inherently part of that process.

I don’t think churnalism makes for very good science reporting, although I equally don’t think it’s all that bad for science in most cases either. I think it’s still better to have press release-based snippets of research in the news than no science news at all. Although web-based news sites can do much better with the added-value options the web offers – links, discussion etc. But there’s much room for improvement, and the responsibility lies with everyone involved in this process. The relationship between press officers and scientist is often non-existent or strained, and I think simple efforts could help a lot in improving this.

If you have any opinions or good examples of what works and what doesn’t, I’d love to hear it.

Comments

  1. You had me at the kitten, and then lost me with all that insightful analysis and comment.

    No, seriously, we found that in the Comet Holmes press, with notable exceptions, most press coverage propagated phrases, whole sentences, and repeated various small errors, implying strongly that no-one down-stream was checking anything about the up-stream story being churned; not even editing it, really.

  2. Last year I blogged on the Canis Major dwarf galaxy controversy. The problem is that the popular astronomy sources including news articles, APOD and Wikipedia make the dwarf galaxy hypothesis sound like a fact rather than an interesting if controversial theory.

    I traced the problem back to the original Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg press release, which unfortunately made the hypothesis sound like an established fact. Once PR people working with scientists send out a press release, they have to realize that it will be copied verbatim and embedded in the Internet and popular belief for a long time to come. So I think that they need to balance the popular press’s need for a simple dramatic story and longer term scientific credibility.

    Personally I usually find press releases and news stories based on them useless for real information. The only ones I value at all link to a scientific paper, which at least gives me a chance to monitor its citations in the time following.

  3. Yes, my own experience is very similar. I spent a few months working in the ESO press office some years ago – definitely one of the better organisations for science-media relations. It really brought home how incompatible PR is with in-depth balanced reporting. Progress in science is so incremental, there aren’t many papers (most press releases are about single papers) that are instantly “wow!”-worthy. Doesn’t mean they’re not excellent and meaningful, but it requires a bit more background than can be summarised in a standard 4-5 paragraphs’ release.

    ….. I’m not really sure what the best practice is or should be, but it’s clear that things could be much better, particularly in more controversial areas of science.

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