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  • Press releases may be tempting but they miss the wider picture

"Journalists are too busy rewriting press releases to do vital investigative work"
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Relying on the news provided in press releases means that more complicated — but crucial — stories will remain hidden.

As I sat down to write this, I was greeted by more than 100 press releases in my inbox, from scientific journals, universities, research organisations and NGOs — the majority based in the developed world.

All press releases vie for editors' attention, seeking to be widely published to boost the visibility and impact of the organisations they come from.

SPEED READ

  • Press releases can offer busy science editors and journalists easy news ideas
  • But relying on them can mean that underrepresented voices and more complex stories are ignored
  • Wherever possible, original in-depth stories should form the core of journalists' work

While this has been a reality for science journalists and editors for some time, the debate on whether or not press releases are beneficial has resurfaced recently and is set to continue over the next few months.

There are sessions planned at the upcoming World Conference of Science Journalists 2013 in Finland to discuss the issue. And the UK's Department for International Development has recently announced the launch of a programme to support the ability of policymakers and the media to assess research findings.

Press releases are convenient because they are written with the media in mind: if a journalist wants to publish the news stories they are based on, often they can just repurpose the release.

Additionally, many of the news stories they contain are embargoed, giving editors the opportunity to see them a few days or hours before they hit the headlines — and valuable commissioning time.

In short, press releases make my life easier. But this can also be their downfall — and it is a major sticking point among scientific journalists.

The easy option

Because of the ready-to-publish nature of press releases, critics say, many science journalists are becoming too lazy to search for original stories that go beneath the surface. Or they are too busy rewriting press releases to do vital investigative work.

Such reporting could explore stories about misconduct; matters that affect policy; the failure to research issues important to vulnerable communities; research that doesn't get published — for example, the promising drug that turns out to be a failure; and disagreements between scientists. These issues are rarely press released.

Each day, science editors and journalists decide what press-released news to cover in their stories, and what not to, giving them a false sense of choice. In fact, their choices are constrained and guided by the organisations deciding what to press release.

As former SciDev.Net news editor Aisling Irwin wrote in an article for the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW): "In this press release-laden life of ours … we sit in gilded cages feeding on the titbits poked through the bars when our real job should be out digging for worms.

"Worms: stories that no-one is paying a communicator to boast about; stories that no-one wants publicised; stories about people who have no voice." [1]

But to get to these stories, scientists in the developing world "need to be found, pinned down and interviewed, sometimes against their will", Irwin says. This may involve visiting scientists and reporting from the field and from conferences to uncover the untold stories.

'Information overload'

Last month, Connie St Louis, president of the ABSW and director of the MA in science journalism at City University in London, reignited the debate. [2]

She discussed the "information overload" from an "avalanche of press releases", and said journalists are too busy to "separate the wheat from the chaff" at a time when publication relations for science is increasing and independent science journalism is decreasing.

Much science coverage is PR masquerading as reporting, said St Louis. And much of this reporting consists of translating researchers' findings using simplistic language and sensationalism without revealing the underlying ambiguities, tensions and politics.

It takes time and effort to investigate local stories and find views that may be underrepresented in mainstream science, which still largely emanates from Western-based institutions.

This is where independent media organisations dedicated to critical science journalism can play an increasingly important role. They go beyond the story that major corporate and establishment players want to tell and dig for the deeper stories enriched with views from local voices, for example those in developing countries.

Developed world bias

While journalists are oversupplied with information from major science institutions in the West, such potential news is often hard to come by — or non-existent — in developing nations.

A report published by the UK National Commission for UNESCO last year identified the need for a science news service for Africa, one that would dig out and promote important African research to local and global media. [3]

One could easily envisage a press release service tagged to one of the big regional science journal databases, such as African Journals Online, that could focus some of the media's attention on the science being done in the developing world.

But in our efforts to bring more of the locally relevant and produced science from the developing world to the fore, we mustn't just go for the easiest stories.

Press releases should not replace in-depth reporting and efforts to challenge the status quo of established science, and they should not result in journalists neglecting difficult issues.

In their quest to cover more locally produced science, science journalists in the developing world — and they seem to be thriving — should avoid the pitfalls that press releases have presented to their Western colleagues.

As Irwin wrote: "Being spoon-fed has changed us. We have become indolent. Digging for worms seems like too much hard work."

Editors and journalists should stop rushing to cover the same stories as everyone else and start spending more time on developing original story ideas, including those that various interest groups would prefer not to be told. Instead of being our bread and butter, press releases should be an occasional snack we take between the more hearty meals that really matter for our profession's health.

Mićo Tatalović
News Editor, SciDev.Net

References

[1] Irwin, A. Do science journalists now rely too much on press releases to do their jobs? (Association of British Science Writers, 4 May 2009)

[2] St Louis, C. Don't let the PR industry annex science journalism (Research Fortnight, 16 January 2013)         

[3] Clayton, J. and Jouber, M. The Need for an African Science News Service (UK National Commission for UNESCO, May 2012)

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