Do journalists actually read the research they’re reporting on?

Continuing the media-related theme of the previous post

Rather than simply sending out press releases to promote new research articles and publications, it would be better if universities, research institutions and journals sent the full articles to journalists.

That is the suggestion of informal surveys of journalists that have been conducted in the UK and Australia, according to Lyndal Byford, Media Manager of the Australian Science Media Centre.

Her article below also mentions one of Croakey’s recurring gripes about online media coverage (whether of health, politics or whatever) – a widespread failure to include links to the original document so readers can go to the source themselves.

(And at the bottom of her article are links to some studies spelling out some of the pitfalls of journal press releases).


What do specialist journalists say about their reporting practices?

Lyndal Byford writes:

Science is one of those topics where reporters find themselves inundated with media releases.

In 2010, the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism analysed more than 200 health, medicine and science-related stories and found that more than half the health journalism in our papers is driven by a public relations event or media release.

Each week universities, research institutions and scientific journals swamp newsrooms across the country with release after release – but interestingly it’s rare that these releases come with an accompanying copy of the research.

A recent blog by The Guardian’s environment and science news editor James Randerson, raised an interesting question – how important is the ACTUAL scientific paper to a science journalist?

Randerson’s quick survey of his UK colleagues revealed a resounding “bloody important”, but how would Australian journalists respond?

In an effort to keep things as scientific as possible (I might want to publish a paper some day) I asked 64 specialist reporters from across Australia the same three questions Randerson had asked:

• “When writing a standard news story based on a paper in a scientific journal, how often do you get hold of the paper and read it? always/mostly/sometimes/never

• If you think it is important to read the original papers,  please explain why. How much of it do you typically read?

• If you don’t read the original paper most or all of the time, why not?”

So far I’ve received 29 responses and here’s how the Australian results break down:

When writing a standard news story based on a paper in a scientific journal, how often do you get hold of the paper and read it? Always, Always,  Always! (Always – 29, Sometimes – 0,  Never – 0)

Phew! It seems that despite the rise and rise of churnalism over journalism, specialist journalists still rely on the research papers to get to the heart of the story. Scientists across the country should breathe a sigh of relief. The paper is still mightier than the media release.

A few journalists who bravely admitted their  “always” was probably more of an “almost always” highlighted a lack of availability of the paper as the major limiting factor.

The lessons here are clear: Making papers easily available for journalists should be part and parcel of sending out the media release – to quote Sinatra – you can’t have one without the other.

But this discussion does raise another interesting question.  Since the journalists all want to read the source material – maybe the audience would too.

As more and more media outlets develop their online presence, with apps, blogs, videos and tweets galore, the science stories that provide a link to the original research are still few and far between.

Obviously not all stories lend themselves to this type of approach – feature writers in particular would suffer, having to end a story with pages of links to multiple reports.

But for your standard one study equals one story type news – the journalist’s ‘bread and butter’ as Randerson puts it – surely a link to the article only adds to the credibility of the story itself.

As pay walls go up and consumers want more from online content, links like these might go some way to being the sort of added value readers demand.

Of course that would also mean taking the research itself out from behind a pay wall – but that’s a whole other rant.

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Categories: evidence-based issues, health & medical marketing, health and medical research, Media-related issues

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4 Responses

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  1. I’d like to believe the writers above that they read papers. But I’m certain that the sub-editors or whatever they are called in radio and TV don’t read anything.

    Most cancer/Alzheimers* “breakthroughs” turn out to be single papers on a mouse experiment not yet published, not replicated and 10 years away from human trials.

    *Schizophrenia is about the only other topic worth a “breakthrough”

    And how hard is it to link to sources on a web version of a newspaper?

    Of course unless someone else is paying (mainly the taxpayer) for the journal the average person will have to fork out $35 or so just get get a look at a badly written paper of possibly 9 pages. So even if you/me/one manages to find out the correct name of the paper it is not possible to read it.

    by Doctor Whom on Apr 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm

  2. Lyndal and her survey participants make a critical point about the importance of reviewing journal papers in the context of research reporting and I have great respect for their work and professional integrity.

    However, sitting on the other side of the fence as a communications professional, I am regularly surprised by a minority of journalists who invite scientists to comment on international newspaper articles about research. In other words, another journalist’s account of a piece of research.

    Just last week, a reporter working for one of Australia’s largest circulation tabloids contacted me for comment on an article from the UK’s Daily Mail. When I asked her if she had the paper, she said ‘yes…we’re a newspaper’. Clearly, something went missing in translation.

    In the end, the journal paper was sourced and a comment was provided. But only after the scientist in question had reviewed the research and given it the benefit of their expertise.

    Thankfully this style of science reportage is the exception and not the norm and does not reflect the excellent work of Australia’s specialist health and science writers.

    What is disconcerting is that these journalists often reach the widest audience and in doing so, do science and its reputation with a general audience a great disservice.

    Moreover, I would argue that the peer reviewed journals themselves could do a lot more in the service of science and it’s engagement with the general public by making papers more accessible. As many of the contributors here know, the international embargoes often break at very difficult times for the Australian media and all too regularly we struggle to get access to papers hidden behind paywalls when we are asked for reactive comment about international research.

    Since its inception, the Australian Science Media Centre has made a huge contribution to science reporting in Australia and I have no doubt they will continue to do so by helping us tackle some of these issues.

    (NB: The views expressed here are my own)

    by Christina Hickie on Apr 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm

  3. Research? Australian journalists?

    You are having a laugh.

    The words ‘The Expendable Project’ prove everything you will ever need to know about Australian journalism.

    It is greatest political scandal for generations, but the contribution of Australian journalists has thus far been to censor it away from the public.

    by MaggieP on Apr 4, 2012 at 4:28 am

  4. Journalists generally recognise that they are not qualified to judge the subjects they report on. The “experts” in the field are quoted and balancing expert opinions are sought. Unfortunately for journalistic standards, the reading public are increasingly being conditioned to be titillated, in Cranky Franky’s “Pimps and Hookers” style by in-expert, self-opinionated drivel presented as “commentary” on supposed “factual” news reported elsewhere. The fact/drivel index is as low as the opnion of the general citizenry about journalists and matches the resulting low demand for drivel, or as the PM alleges, “Crap” filled newspapers now becoming as popular as secondhand toilet paper. Which is not a recycling policy of The Greens. It does seem to be benefcial to the conservative paries though doesn’t it? The commentariat, generally acting as the bastard children of Dr Goebels, do not need to read anything “factual” being engaged in bolstering ignorance and prejudice for political purposes. Hence their newspapers’ unpopularity

    by Hamis Hill on May 17, 2012 at 9:45 am

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