I recently returned from the latest ScienceOnline conference regarding science and the Web. I could wax poetic at great length about what a joy it was to hang out with science writing enthusiasts and luminaries and to meet numerous colleagues face-to-face for the first time, but I'll let others such as Ed Yong go into greater depth as to why you might want to go yourself.
Instead, I want to discuss a discovery that me and fellow science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker made the last night of the meeting that prompted a great deal of swearing from the both of us. That discovery has to do with press releases.
There was a lot of talk at the conference about how communication between scientists and science journalists should improve to best benefit the public, and discussions as to whether or not science journalists should let scientists see copies of stories or their quotes beforehand. The issue, as Christie Wilcox pointed out to us, was that all the journalists at the conference weren't really the ones we should be reaching. The real problems aren't those writers at the meeting — who are likely knowledgeable in science writing and want to talk with scientists to do as good a job as possible — but general assignment reporters who don't know much if anything about science, or journalists who do not have either the time or the inclination to interview scientists for stories.
In cases where the scientists are not contacted about their research, we have "churnalism" — news released based largely if not totally on press release alone. We also have pres-release farms such as PhysOrg and ScienceDaily that seem to me to do little else but repackage press releases one can find on science press releases sites such as EurekAlert.
The discovery that Maggie and I made was not that churnalism happens. There are a fair number of opinions regarding press releases among science journalists — reporters are free at some outlets to use material from them while they are prohibited from doing so at others. In many ways, press releases are kind of like the dark matter of the science news universe — invisible to the public for the most part, but they exert a tremendous force on science journalism.
The problem, as we talked with scientists, was that apparently researchers don't often get to vet press releases before they are published. That profoundly shocked and disturbed me and Maggie. Journalists have a number of ethical considerations with whether or not they let sources read articles before publication, but the press officers who write the press releases should have no such restraints. But what I heard that night corroborated an experience of mine in the last week, where I talked with a scientist for a story who told me he didn't see the press release on his work.
This is just an anecdotal find so far, and I know of at least one public information officer who's shocked that press releases aren't always vetted by scientists. Still, if many or even most science-related press releases are not vetted by scientists beforehand, that strikes me as a huge problem. Any number of errors might creep in, becoming compounded as they spread into the public. It's as if, and forgive me for being coarse here, discovering that you've been having sex without a condom.
I think at this point it's important for bodies such as the National Association of Science Writers to ask their public information officers how often they vet press releases with scientists, and to start a discussion as to why that is and whether those practices should get changed stat.
I think it's also important to spread the word to editors at science news outlets and to science news journalism programs, and possibly to magazines such as the Columbia Journalism Review, that this lack of vetting exists.
The problem of churnalism is not going to go away. My hope is that if we can improve the quality of press releases, we can at least stem one major potential source of misinformation.