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News release labeling to combat a global scourge of exaggerated claims

Mary Chris Jaklevic has been a freelance contributor and a staff reporter-editor for HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.

Even with an unfolding pandemic, there’s no shortage of overreaching public relations news releases to mislead the public.

It’s particularly dismaying to spot these examples of hype at a time when conveying balanced and accurate messages to the public is arguably more important than ever. They serve as a reminder that like the coronavirus outbreak, the scourge of exaggerated health care claims spans international borders.

When HealthNewsReview.org published systematic news release reviews daily over a four year period, we documented hundreds of problematic news releases from around the globe and showed how overly positive framing in these documents can make it into news stories.

So it seems worthwhile to keep tabs on one ongoing attempt to improve the quality of news releases.

Nearly two years ago I wrote about a news release labeling system launched in the UK that aimed to curb exaggerated claims about medical research. The voluntary labels are meant as a tool both for journalists to assess the significance of new research and for PR professionals to discuss with scientists how their work will be portrayed. 

They categorize research based on:

  • whether findings were peer-reviewed (vetted by independent experts)
  • the type of evidence, such as an observational study or a randomized controlled trial
  • the subjects (people, animals, human embryos, or cells).

While not nearly as extensive as our 10 criteria, we still wondered if these three labeling criteria could help to reduce the spread of hype. The answer is, it’s hard to tell. However, they are being embraced by some media relations (or public relations or public information) professionals.

‘Nudge’ toward accuracy

First, a little context. It’s important to note that no one expects slapping labels on news releases to automatically improve their quality. In fact, the idea emanated from a comprehensive list of recommendations to shore up public trust in medical evidence that was issued in 2017 by the UK’s Academy of Medical Sciences.

More forceful measures — such as compelling research institutions to follow codes of conduct for communicating research and take a responsibility for ensuring that findings are portrayed accurately in the news — still haven’t been implemented, according to Petroc Sumner, a psychology professor at Cardiff University who has studied the link between exaggerated news releases and exaggerated media coverage

Yet advocates say labels can remind media relations staffs to emphasize vital caveats in the news release and the headline. Fiona Lethbridge, a spokeswoman for the Science Media Centre (SMC), which developed the tool at the academy’s behest, called them “a little nudge in the direction of accuracy and responsible reporting.” 

In a recent SMC survey of 29 PR professionals using the labeling system, most said it didn’t affect the content of their news releases (because they said that they already followed best practices), but some acknowledged that the labeling process did affect how they wrote the headlines and bodies of their news releases.

For example, about a third of users surveyed said labeling had or might have affected how likely they were to include caveats in the news release, and about a quarter said the labels did or might have affected how a headline was written. More than half of users said the system sparked discussions or helped their team learn. 

According to individual comments, labeling encouraged such practices such as: referring to statistical associations, not cause-and effect, for results of observational studies; mentioning in a headline that a study was done in animals not humans; and refraining from publicizing research that hasn’t undergone peer review. 

Some users reported that the system acts as leverage to push back against researchers who want to hype findings and reassure researchers who fear their work will be “over-egged.” 

Significantly, nearly all found the system quick and easy to use.

Sumner called feedback “encouraging.”

“Our biggest fear was that time-pressured professionals would simply say ‘we do not have the time for any additions to press releases’. But instead they seem to be saying that it is time-efficient and there are small gains on some occasions – such as boosting their confidence in some studies, or clarifying their stance on non-peer review or caveats,” he said.

More use of labels is expected

Several science PR professionals told me they see labels as a way to raise standards. Thomas Parkhill, a freelance press officer based in Italy, called labeling “part of a trend towards better communication.”

Joseph Caputo, who manages media communications at Cambridge, Mass.-based biomedical journal publisher Cell Press, called labels “simply good hygiene for promoting scientific work.” Cell Press is the only U.S. organization using the labels, according to the SMC.

“As a publisher, we pay attention to how our papers are being promoted and covered, and we often see studies in flies or mice hyped because the fact that the work was done in animal models does not make it into someone’s headline or opening paragraphs,” Caputo said. “If a reporter notices from the labels that a study is in, for example, fruit flies, and that prevented the paper from getting covered and portrayed inaccurately, then for us it’s a win.”

Matt Shipman, research communications lead for North Carolina State University, noted that research shows incorporating caveats into press materials doesn’t make reporters significantly less likely to cover a study but does increase the likelihood that resulting news stories incorporate relevant caveats.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no down side — you still get the news out there, and it’s more likely to be accurate,” he said.

EurekAlert!, a news release distribution service run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), plans to add the labels to its tagging system this summer, said Brian Lin, EurekAlert!’s director of editorial content strategy. He said they’d probably appear in a right-hand column under the heading “More about this news release.”

HealthNewsReview.org has criticized EurekAlert! for distributing shoddy news releases. Lin told me “we support any efforts to make news releases more transparent and contextual.” He said applying the labels will be voluntary but EurekAlert! will encourage their use.

It is noteworthy that two of the overreaching coronavirus news releases I cited at the beginning of this article were disseminated by EurekAlert!. 

However, Lin said that based on informal conversations he believes public information officers (PIOs) “are generally supportive of any move to make their news releases more transparent because that’s what science reporters like to see – and since EurekAlert! is first and foremost a media relations tool for most of our PIO users, I don’t anticipate much pushback.”

Some predict EurkeAlert!’s adoption of the labeling system will kickstart wider use. So far uptake has been limited to about 40 major universities and journals that regularly issue media announcements. In particular, many smaller institutions in the UK haven’t adopted the labels, Lethbridge said. 

“We’ve been hoping EurekAlert! would make this addition, so it’s welcome news,” Caputo said.

False reassurance

Retired Ohio State University senior science and medical communications officer Earle Holland is skeptical of labeling, however.

“I don’t think it will have any impact other than suggesting – falsely – that the labeling adoption suggests some quality enhancement,” he said. “The submission process for releases to EurekAlert! already requires the completion of a host of information type categories – journal name, meeting presentation, authors, subject area, sponsors, etc.  Adding more won’t inherently improve anything.”

Holland added that skilled science communicators don’t need “reminders” to include qualifying information high up in the news release.

I reached out to several UK health care journalists to see whether they think labels affect their reporting. Only one responded (perhaps no surprise during a pandemic). Daily Mail science correspondent Vicky Allen told me only that she finds the labels “quite useful when in a rush.”

Health care journalists may welcome an aid to help them cull through the dozens of news releases that are issued each day. However, labels don’t guarantee that the news release is balanced and accurate.

Take a recent news release from the University of Reading: Say cheese: modified dairy naturally lower in saturated fat benefits blood cholesterol and heart health.

Labels show the findings were based on a peer-reviewed randomized clinical trial in humans — all factors pointing to reliability. However, the news release falls short on HealthNewsReview.org’s 10 criteria for news release reviews by hyping “benefits” and leaving out important information.

Specifically, the release does not provide absolute numbers to show the differences in cholesterol between people who ate normal dairy versus those who ate modified dairy products. Nor does it caution that those differences might not be significant enough to affect heart health, or that the findings can’t be applied to people who don’t consume above-average amounts of dairy. 

In sum, it’s possible that labels might help to tone down some cases of misleading hype. But like hand sanitizer, they are no panacea.

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