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Monday, 4 May 2009

DEBATE: Do science journalists now rely too much on press releases to do their jobs?

: Aisling Irwin, News Editor, SciDev.Net

It's not that the press releases are poor quality. In fact it’s quite the opposite: many of them are fine examples of their type. There they are every morning in the news inbox or at the top of an RSS feed: pages of clickables in the EurekAlert! email; stories from AlphaGalileo; discoveries from numerous Universities of Exemplary Science; successful research sponsored by the We Fund Fantastic Science Foundations, non-governmental organizations, charities, institutes. Hundreds of science communicators have been tapping away and we journalists are kept busy all day just sifting through the fruits of their work.

When I worked on The Daily Telegraph these myriad releases solved most of our problems. Much of our work was to sift through them, pluck the most promising, do a greater or lesser amount of work on them, and toss the finished gem to the news desk before beginning work on the next one.

Press releases help us feed a voracious news desk; they lessen our fears of being trumped by a rival publication – because we know we all feed on the same sources. They fill our days with a sense of industry, but this hides from us our journalistic crime: passivity.

In this press release-laden life of ours this is what happens: 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.

In my job as news editor of SciDev.Net (Science and Development Network) there are many of these science stories and they take a lot of work. There are unsung scientists, in Africa in particular, doing world-changing work. They need to be found, pinned down and interviewed, sometimes against their will.

There are stories, too, about the science that isn’t getting done. No-one writes a press release to say they failed to find a cure for elephantiasis – but it matters. In any country there’s the research that doesn’t get published – the negative findings (the promising drug that turns out not to work); the findings that were too controversial to print. There are the many intellectual disagreements between scientists that don’t find their way into press releases which, ultimately, are written to enhance the reputation of their sponsors.

There are issues that cloak the practice of science, and its repercussions, that don’t get into press releases, but that are a vital part of our work. If we don’t explore them then one of two things happens: either they lie quiet and unwritten about or the generalists pick them up and make a hash of them.

But press releases aren’t preventing us pursuing those stories, are they? Surely we can work with both approaches to stories?

That’s the insidious thing. The bucket of press releases that greets the journalist in the morning has become compulsory whereas the worms are optional – on the “to do” list for when we’ve cleaned out the bucket. The problem is that the bucket is rarely empty. And, if we ever do reach the bottom, we find that being spoon-fed has changed us. We have become indolent. Digging for worms seems like too much hard work.

AGAINST: Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science

No! Press releases remain an indispensable source of information for journalists, but there is no evidence that they rely to heavily on them, despite the increasing pressures on them.

Although things are getting better, many scientists are pretty poor at communicating about their work with people outside of their own disciplines, including the ‘lay public’. But press releases allow communications professionals, such as university press officers, to help scientists produce clear, concise and quotable descriptions of their research.

Journalists use good quality press releases to help them decide whether a new scientific paper or research grant presents an opportunity for a news or feature item. The releases are far easier for journalists to assess than jargon-laden journal papers which are written for other scientists.

But most good journalists use a press release as a starting point for a story. Journalists can pursue their own angles and obtain their own quotes on a story simply by using contact details on the release.

And, as a last resort, a press release may provide a choice quote that cannot be obtained from a scientist who is too inarticulate or inaccessible.

So press releases are an efficient way of helping both scientists and journalists to achieve the ultimate aim of communicating with a wider audience.

That is not to say that there are no examples of bad practice. The quality of press releases, like press officers, can vary a lot. A bad press release might provide an inaccurate summary of a piece of research, especially if it has not been checked with the scientist who carried it out.

And a poor journalist, or a good journalist struggling to meet an impossible deadline, might be fooled by a release that obscures a major flaw or a vested interest. But few science journalists I know fall into this trap.

Most of the objections these days to the use of press releases comes from people who argue that each story a journalist writes should be the product of months of painstaking investigative work that culminates with an exclusive, while a story that is prompted by a press release amounts to reprehensible “churnalism”.

Such notions are based on a romanticised view of the job of a busy science journalist. In the real world, journalists use press releases, like other sources of information, to help them make quick and effective decisions about whether to cover a story.

But there are ways in which the current situation could be improved. The quality of press officers, and the releases they produce, range from the outstanding to the appalling. The art of writing a good press release is a much under-appreciated skill, not least because the role of press officers is under-valued in most places where scientists work.

Journalists could improve the quality of press releases, and make their lives easier, if they were more prepared to highlight the good, the bad and the ugly. Surely the way forward to praise the good and shame the bad and the ugly, not condemn them all?