Context is Key: Reporters, PIOs, and Handling Health Study Findings Responsibly

Photo credit: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia Commons

Coffee is good for you. Or bad for you. The same can be said for red wine, chocolate, and eggs. It depends on which news story you just read.

Media coverage of health research can give readers cognitive whiplash. There’s an explanation for this.

“The reason the stories contradict each other is because the studies contradict each other,” Virginia Hughes wrote in a May 12 post at her blog, Only Human.

“The science of health is so, so confusing, I almost wonder if it wouldn’t be better for journalists to stop writing about health altogether,” Hughes notes at the beginning of the post. And she goes on to explain why it can be so frustrating to write about complex health research for an audience of readers that seem to be looking for health tips, not nuance-laden articles about the scientific process or incremental progress in our understanding of one facet of human health.

Hughes’s post led to a lengthy online conversation among reporters, which she recapped May 13.

Her post about the challenges of covering health research was well-timed.

Problems in health research coverage

On May 5, Gary Schwitzer published an article in JAMA Internal Medicine that evaluates seven years’ worth of health coverage in U.S. news outlets. The results weren’t encouraging. The headline of Paul Raeburn’s Tracker post on the Schwitzer article seems a fairly accurate summary: “After seven years of grading stories, reviewers give health care news what I’d call an F.”

And earlier this year, a PLOS ONE paper assessing media coverage of medical journals found that “when the media does cover observational studies, they select articles of inferior quality. Newspapers preferentially cover medical research with weaker methodology.” [Citations to relevant papers below.]

All of this gives us a sense that reporters have some work to do, and that there are reporters on the health research beat who are trying to figure out how to do a better job of communicating effectively with their readers/viewers/listeners. They want to tell compelling stories, but also want to make clear that research is an iterative process. Context is important. There are no studies that throw back the curtain on a medical issue and can accurately proclaim “Problem solved!”

But reporters shouldn’t be the only ones trying to improve how research findings are communicated; public information officers (PIOs) also have responsibilities here.

In the online dialogue following Hughes’s May 12 post, Forbes reporter Matthew Herper noted that news releases are written to “make studies seem new.” If the news release is about a recent journal article, I’d argue that the study actually is new; the problem is that the news release isn’t placing the work in context. And that lack of context is both: A) important; and B) something that PIOs can do something about.

What PIOs can do

PIOs can – and, in my opinion, should – pay particular to attention to three things when interviewing researchers and writing news releases: context, limitations, and next steps.

In the online conversation following the May 12 post, freelance reporter Melinda Wenner Moyer said that one of her key interview questions is “How does this new finding change/inform what we know about X?”

In short, she asks researchers to place their work in context. In other words: What did previous studies have to say about the subject? Do the new findings support previous findings? Do they differ? How? Why is that important? What new questions does this raise?

Those are questions that reporters should ask, but they’re questions that PIOs should ask too. And, if possible, those are questions that should be addressed (even if it’s only briefly) in a news release.

It’s also important for PIOs to ask about a study’s limitations and to make those limitations clear in the news release. Was the study a randomized control trial or was it observational? How big was the sample size? How statistically robust was the finding?

It’s essential that PIOs be honest here. If there’s an aspect of the study that you think might make it unpalatable to reporters, consider not issuing a release on the work, rather than trying to find a way to write around the “problem.”

I think it’s also helpful to ask researchers about next steps for their work. Most studies raise more questions than they answer. What questions do the new findings raise? Not only is this often interesting, but it can also make clear just how far new findings are from clinical applications.

Is this a little more work than simply saying that every new study is the greatest thing since sliced bread? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.

Three reasons PIOs should report results responsibly

Reason 1: Don’t be the boy who cried wolf. Reporters aren’t stupid. If your news releases and pitches are misleading or overstate the research findings, reporters will quickly identify you as someone they can’t trust. And if they don’t trust you, they’ll simply stop listening to you. It is in your long-term best interest to represent research findings honestly.

Reason 2: Sometimes there is no reporter. In a lot of cases, news aggregation sites and other outlets will simply take your news release and post it as a news story. You can get away with a misleading news release here, because no reporter is checking your facts. But do you want to? This is a selfless reason, rather than a selfish one, but do you really want to be part of the problem here? Now here’s a selfish reason: do you really want reporters and other PIOs to associate you with misleading news stories? Again, it’s in your professional best interest to do some homework and write an honest piece.

Reason 3: It’s in the best interest of your employer. Everything a PIO writes is a reflection on his or her employer, whether that’s a university, a federal lab, or a nonprofit research group. Research institutions need to be seen as trustworthy, honest and responsible. If that image is tarnished it becomes more difficult to get grant funding, attract high-quality researchers, or form partnerships with other research institutions. A PIO’s job is to help protect that image, and that means representing your institution responsibly.

So, readers, what do you think? Did I miss anything that PIOs can or should do to improve media coverage of health research findings? Do you think I got anything wrong? Please let me know in comments.


Schwitzer, Gary (2014) “A Guide to Reading Health Care News Stories” JAMA Internal Medicine doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.1359

Selvaraj S, Borkar DS, Prasad V (2014) “Media Coverage of Medical Journals: Do the Best Articles Make the News?” PLOS ONE 9(1): e85355. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0085355


4 thoughts on “Context is Key: Reporters, PIOs, and Handling Health Study Findings Responsibly

  1. Regina

    But..of course. How can you believe in toxicological science when related to consumer products? Obviously, by doing cell or mouse research with exaggerated or too tiny concentrations of some of the contents in say coffee or wine you can only get contradictory results. If you do retrospect surveys on human habits you are fooled by bad data. On top of that you have that everyone want to be famous by preventing others from drinking their favorite drink or by exhorting them to buy more of it. It all depends on the lobby behind the funding, and then it’s just easy to get the results you need. You can just pick the coffee or the wine that delivers your largely predictable results.


  2. Quinn Eastman

    I’m a science writer at a US medical school. Following up on the discussion on Twitter, I don’t know to what degree PIOs at other institutions are spurred on by quotas. But I know that I am driven by a need to maintain individual relationships with researchers and to demonstrate my relevance to them.
    We can’t just wait passively for Eurekalert. If researchers come to us with a result/paper/presentation, it’s hard to tell them: well your results are not significant enough, for whatever reason. That’ll turn them off and they’ll ignore me the next time around. A lot of my evolved strategy, when it comes to monitoring research going on around my institution, is to always be soaking up what scientists and physicians think is important, so I can approach them at the right time, and so I don’t have to say “no” and turn them off.
    Beyond the engage-or-don’t-engage decision, I think we have a lot of discretion in terms of 1) presentation and 2) distribution. And that’s what science journalists are complaining about: hype, lack of context and spam.


  3. I’m really curious about what other PIOs have to deal with in terms of:
    * whether they have explicit (or implied) quotas for releases or coverage;
    * what those quotas look like (e.g., what kind of numbers are they supposed to meet?);
    * are they required to promote specific papers?
    * how much leeway do PIOs have in declining to promote a given paper?

    If anyone is interested in sharing this sort of information with me (I would make all information anonymous), please email me at shiplives [at] gmail [dot] com.


  4. Kausik Datta

    Matt, I understand and accept the point about context: it is important and necessary to present a given set of observations/results in the context of existing work in the field, and how it corroborates or differs from what we already know. (This, incidentally, is what goes in the Introduction and Discussion sections of scientific research papers.)

    I love that you have also appealed for honesty, integrity and responsibility in these communications, and advocates the raising of questions, including difficult ones, regarding study limitations and next steps in prospect, before the results are presented for wider consumption.

    That said (and accepted), I’d posit that the whole issue is perhaps even more complex. As I started to elaborate, this reply became too large for this space. So I have done the next best thing: I have written about it on my blog. I welcome your thoughts there.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s