Quality matters: Science Translation from Press Release to News

What makes a potential science story newsworthy? The following is a presentation I gave an the annual 2014 meeting of the Southern Political Science Association in New Orleans. The presentation stems from a research paper I conducted for a PhD summer externship.

I started this research with the basic question of where hype in science reporting comes from, and how press officers and journalists might be able to minimize this hype.

Little research has looked into exactly how and what aspects of press releases influence the quality of subsequent news coverage in science. The goal of this study was to understand how endorsement of various newsworthiness criteria affect communicators’ (journalists', bloggers', etc.) evaluations of science press releases.

While scientists often blame the media for poor quality of reporting on science, research has shown that the press release is actually a major point of distortion in the translation of science from journal article to news story (Brechman, Lee, & Cappella, 2011).

In a quote from Geller and colleagues (2005), “today’s newsworthy discoveries must relate to common diseases, to some immediate therapeutic application, or involve some controversy.” But while journalists may be attracted to stories that feature controversy or new and exciting results, scientists value objectivity and replication of scientific results.

In order to investigate the impacts of press release quality on science communicators' news judgement, I conducted an online survey experiment with roughly 300 participants recruited on Twitter, via listservs, etc. Key results can be viewed in the PowerPoint below.

My results revealed that confirming or disconfirming outside evidence mentions in a press release significantly influence perceived newsworthiness. When a press release contained a quote from an outside expert introducing controversy to the significance of the reported findings, communicators indicated that the news outlets they work for would be more likely to cover the story, especially communicators who rated a conflict/controversy news factor as very important in general to their selection of news stories.

On the other hand, communicators who rated a facts/reliability of facts news factor as very important in general tended to express an increased likelihood that the news outlets they work for would cover a story based on the press release with confirming outside evidence.

I plan to publish this paper. If you have any comments or suggestions on potential journals, please let me know!

Geller G, Bernhardt B, Gardner M, Rodgers J & Holtzman N. 2005. Scientists’ and Science Writers’ Experiences Reporting Genetic Discoveries: Toward an Ethic of Trust in Science Journalism. Genetics in Medicine 7(3):198-205.