Responsible public relations for health study findings

Red wine is good for you. Red wine is bad for you. News coverage of health studies can give readers cognitive whiplash, and for good reason.

“The reason the stories contradict each other is because the studies contradict each other,” reporter Virginia Hughes wrote in her blog.

In her post, Hughes explains why it can be so frustrating to write about complex health research for an audience of readers that seem to be looking for health tips, not nuance-laden articles about the scientific process or incremental progress in our understanding of one facet of human health.

Her post was well-timed.

Gary Schwitzer recently published an article in JAMA Internal Medicine that evaluates seven years’ worth of health coverage in U.S. news outlets. The results were, frankly, disheartening. For example, most of the reviewed stories were found to be “unsatisfactory” in how they addressed “costs, benefits, harms, quality of the evidence, and comparison of the new approach with alternatives.”

And earlier this year, a PLOS ONE paper assessed media coverage of medical journals and found that “when the media does cover observational studies, they select articles of inferior quality. Newspapers preferentially cover medical research with weaker methodology.”

All of this gives us a sense that news coverage of health research needs work, and that at least some reporters on the health research beat are trying to figure out how to do a better job of communicating effectively with readers.

But reporters shouldn’t be the only ones trying to improve how research findings are communicated: Public information officers (PIOs) also have responsibilities here.

PIOs can (and should) pay particular to attention to three things when interviewing researchers and writing news releases: context, limitations, and next steps.

Reporters and PIOs should ask researchers to place their work in context. What did previous studies have to say about the subject? Do the new findings support previous findings? Do they differ? How? Why is that important? What new questions does this raise?

PIOs should not only ask those questions, they should address those issues (even if briefly) in a news release.

It’s also important for PIOs to ask about a study’s limitations and to make those limitations clear in the news release. Was the study a randomized control trial or was it observational? How big was the sample size? How statistically robust was the finding?

It’s essential that PIOs be honest here. If there’s an aspect of the study that may make it unpalatable to reporters, maybe that means an institutions shouldn’t issue a release on the work.

I think it’s also helpful to ask researchers about next steps for their work. Not only is this often extremely interesting, but it can often reveal just how far new findings are from clinical applications.

There are at least three reasons that public relations professionals should take steps to report study results responsibly.

Don’t be the boy who cried wolf. If your news releases overstate or misrepresent research findings, reporters will quickly identify you as someone they can’t trust. And if they don’t trust you, they’ll simply stop listening to you.

Sometimes there is no reporter. In a lot of cases, news aggregation sites and other outlets will simply take your news release and post it as a news story. You can get away with a misleading news release here, because no reporter is checking your facts. But do really want to be part of the problem? If reporters and other researchers associate you with misleading news stories, that can only hurt your reputation and that of the researchers you work with.

It’s in the best interest of your employer. Everything a PIO writes is a reflection on his or her employer, whether that’s a university, a federal lab, or a nonprofit research group. Research institutions need to be seen as trustworthy, honest and responsible. If that image is tarnished it becomes more difficult to get grant funding, attract high-quality researchers, or form partnerships with other research institutions. A PIO’s job is to help protect that image, and that means representing your institution responsibly.

Matt Shipman is a science writer and public information officer, North Carolina State University.  He blogs at Communication Breakdown

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