Press releases and public duty

From ‘Science vs Marketing’, published on In The Dark, on May 20, 2022:

… there is an increasing tendency for university press offices to see themselves entirely as marketing agencies instead of informing and/or educating the public. Press releases about scientific research nowadays rarely make any attempt at accuracy – they are just designed to get the institution concerned into the headlines. In other words, research is just a marketing tool.

What astrophysicist and blogger Peter Coles writes here is very true. It is not a recent phenomenon but it hasn’t been widely acknowledged either, especially in the community of journalists. I had reported in 2016 on a study by researchers at the Universities of Cardiff and Wollongong that concluded that university press releases bloated with hype don’t necessarily result in reports in the media that are also bloated with hype. The study was mooted in part by an attempt to find if there was a relationship between the two locations of hype: in press releases and news reports. The study’s finding was a happy one because it indicated that science journalists at large were doing their jobs right, and were not being carried away by the rubbish that universe press offices often printed.

But this said, the study also highlighted the presence of hype in science news reports and which I have also blogged about on many occasions. It typically exists in two contexts: when journalists turn into stenographers and print press releases either as is or with superficial rephrasing, and when journalists themselves uncritically buy into the hype. I find the former to be more forgivable in the Indian context in particular because there are many hapless science journalists here: journalists who are actually generalists, not bound to any particular beat, and whose editors (or their editors’ bosses) have forced them to write on topics with which they are not at all familiar (I strongly suspected this bizarre article in Indian Express – while not being based on a press release of any sort – to be a good example of some sort of editorial pressure). Such a failure reflects to my mind the state of Indian mainstream journalism more than Indian science journalism, the best versions of which are still highly localised to a single handful of outlets.

The latter – of science journalists willfully buying into the hype – is a cardinal sin, more so when it manifests among journalists who should self-evidently know better, as with Pallab Ghosh of the BBC. University press releases affect the former group more, and not the likes of Pallab Ghosh, although there are exceptional cases. Journalists of the former group are more populous and are also employed by larger, wealthier newsrooms with audiences orders of magnitude larger than those that have adopted a more critical view of science. As a result, bad claims in bad press releases crafted by university press offices often reach more people than articles that properly interrogate those claims. So in addition to Coles’s charge that universities are increasingly concerned with “income”, “profit” and “marketing” over “education and research”, I’d add that universities that publish such press releases have also lost sight of their duty to the publics, and would rather be part of the problem.