Not to be missed: last week’s BMJ published an analysis by a team at Dartmouth Medical School led by Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz – “Influence of medical journal press releases on the quality of associated newspaper coverage.”
This is an important contribution to our understanding of the food chain of the dissemination of research news to the American public: medical journals feed journalists who feed the American public what they get out of journals – sometimes driven largely by what’s in journal news releases. If the information at the source is complete and high quality, the flow of information from journalists to the public is more likely to be complete and high quality as well. But this analysis also suggests that “low quality press releases might make (associated newspaper stories) worse.”
Higher quality press releases issued by medical journals were associated with higher quality reporting in subsequent newspaper stories. In fact, the influence of press releases on subsequent newspaper stories was generally stronger than that of journal abstracts. Fundamental information such as absolute risks, harms, and limitations was more likely to be reported in newspaper stories when this information appeared in a medical journal press release than when it was missing from the press release or if no press release was issued. Furthermore, our data suggest that poor quality press releases were worse than no press release being issued: fundamental information was less likely to be reported in newspaper stories when it was missing from the press release than where no press release was issued at all (although the findings were generally not statistically significant).
Reporting on medical research is challenging: newspapers need to reach readers who vary widely in, for example, statistical literacy and reading levels. But these issues are not unique to medical news. Journalists constantly report quantitative information. Imagine the sports section without scores, player statistics, or team standing tables; or political polls without numbers. Although further work is needed to improve public understanding of medical research, a first step is to ensure that people have access to the fundamental information—basic study facts, quantified results, important study limitations—information they need to understand the findings and to decide whether to believe them. Our results suggest that press releases of high quality increase the chance that readers will receive this information.
High quality abstracts might improve newspaper coverage. But our observations suggest that well written press releases issued by medical journals could do even more to improve the communication of medical news to the public. Our observation that press releases have more influence than journal abstracts on reporting is unsurprising. Abstracts are dense, technical, and written mainly for a professional audience. Press releases are written in a non-technical narrative format that explicitly targets journalists, many of whom have limited scientific training.
High quality press releases are a simple way for medical journals to increase the chance of newspapers receiving key information. We hope our observations encourage medical journals to issue high quality press releases. Press officers could use a checklist to remind them to include the basic facts, numbers, and cautions. A more ambitious approach would be to develop a standardised press release that would help journalists find key information, perhaps by including structured tables quantifying benefits and harms. Some small journals, however, simply lack the necessary staff to produce high quality press releases, emphasising the need for editors to ensure that the relevant information is easily accessible in the journal abstract.
Our study shows that there is substantial room for improving press releases. Medical journals should use press releases not simply to make medical news—but also to make news reporting better.