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How to Help Reporters Get it Right

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Recently, the media jumped on what they thought was a man-bites-dog story about a vegetarian diet—a study appeared to have found a link between a vegetarian diet and cancer. A link between a presumably healthy diet and cancer? The reporters were all over it.

Being a Vegetarian Could Kill You” warned the New York Post, and “Why a Vegetarian Diet May Be Bad for You” posted the American Council on Science and Health.

Unfortunately (fortunately?), that’s not what the researchers found. At all.

According to a good summary of the story by Motherboard, one of the study’s lead author was understandably not too happy about the misinterpretations: “In the beginning, we were pretty happy to see our research getting so much attention,” Kaixiong Ye, a biology post-doc at Cornell University and co-author of the study in question, told me. “But over the last few days I have found that most of the news coming out right now [on our study] is wrong. It’s kind of frustrating.”

The story made the rounds for a good 24 hours before the media caught up. A more accurate summary of the research can be found in The Washington Post: “Cornell study finds some people may be genetically programmed to be vegetarians”.

So what went wrong? And how can any scientist hope to prevent this from happening with their research?

It helps to know who is typically involved in the process and what their role is:

  • Scientist – typically one or more lead researchers and authors of the published journal article;
  • Media staff – author of the press release based on the published journal article; and
  • Reporter – the media person at the news outlet who picked up the press release and wrote the article.

Each person has their roles and responsibilities here. But it’s a little bit like playing Chinese whispers sometimes, so we’ll never really know exactly where the message went off-course. Perhaps the scientist didn’t have time to review the press release before it went out. Or maybe the media staff at his or her organization didn’t ask the research to review the release before it went out and had misinterpreted the findings. Finally, the reporter could have taken that eye-catching headline on the press release and run with it, without bothering to read the study more in depth or with a critical eye.

Any and all of these scenarios may have occurred.

In all of these cases, however, the best effort the scientist could make would be to ensure that the media staff at his/her institution had a good, solid understanding of:

  • The problem that the research was investigating;
  • The findings of the study itself;
  • The implications of those findings, i.e., what they really mean; and
  • What the next steps are in this body of work.

First, and perhaps most important, one of the lead authors should be designated the main contact. Ideally, this can be the individual on the research team with the most experience dealing with the press or the best communication skills.

This author should then make themselves available to their organization’s media person. The media person who will be writing the press release and any other summaries that will posted on the website or distributed. The designated author should then offer to sit down with the media person for a briefing or quick call and be available to answer any questions.

Once drafted, the designated author should request at least one opportunity to review the final language that the media person intends to use in the press release, anticipating that there may be some hyperbole (which is okay as long as, overall, it is accurate). Headlines are often afforded a bit of leeway, the better to catch the reporter’s eye. Though again, it should be (roughly) accurate. The scientist should also make themselves  available for any questions from their media person and serve as a contact for journalists who may call.

Certainly these additional steps add a bit of complexity to the process and more work for the scientist. This collaborative, teamwork approach, however, is really critical to getting the messaging correct from the beginning. And the investment of time up front could save time and effort later. Unfortunately, even with the best efforts, sometimes the reporter may still get it wrong. Which bring me to:

Next week: How to Respond When Reporters Get it Wrong

Elizabeth Striano



Author: Elizabeth Striano

Elizabeth Striano is a science writer and editor and owner of A Green Footprint LLC, which provides communications and sustainabiilty consulting services to environmental consulting firms, nonprofits, and a variety of businesses and organizations.

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