How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Stop the Press (Releases)

One of the remarkable (and odd, and sad) things about research into science communications: how little some of the researchers seem to understand about the practice of communicating science and how media work.

For instance: Do messages arguing against climate action (you know, from big business or climate deniers) get too much play in the media? To find out, the scholar Rachel Betts ran nearly 30 years’ worth of content in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today through plagiarism detection software, to find out how often those three papers quoted or closely paraphrased more than 1,700 press releases from groups for and against climate action.

Her main findings are summarized by the title of her new PNAS paper: “In climate news, statements from large businesses and opponents of climate action receive heightened visibility.”

By “heightened visibility,” Betts means: “statements” (i.e., press releases) by large businesses and opponents of climate action get about twice as much attention as press releases with messages advocating climate action. Betts thinks her findings mean that “the structural power of business interests and journalistic norms of balance and objectivity have distorted the public debate around climate change.”

Maybe. But I’m skeptical Betts has demonstrated that in this paper. Why? Because journalists generally quote press releases with views contrary to the thrust of their articles at the end of their articles. These inclusions tend to be the curtest, tacked-on nod to “journalistic norms of balance and objectivity” possible — inclusion as insult.

So disproportionate representation of opposing press releases in news stories could be seen as a positive for climate action narrative. If the story favors action on climate change, the advocates of action will be personally quoted by the reporter — at length, higher up in the articles. The reporter won’t just quote their press releases.

Betts also found that less than three percent of all messages urging action on climate change from scientific and technical organizations were picked up by the Times, the Journal and USA Today, “as compared with nearly 10 percent of messages from organizations as a whole.”

Betts doesn’t have an explanation for this disparity, but says she’s surprised by it. I’m not. As a regular consumer of press releases from universities and other research centers, I see what dismal affairs these documents often are. Futurity and Aspen Ideas are two of many clearinghouses for these desperate attempts to engage the media based on new findings or researcher expertise. Futurityland is Futilityland for credible, actionable steps that a journalist would take seriously.

If your organization has to post a statement on an issue to respond to social pressure or to please funders, by all means. But if you’re the story or you’re defining the story, no one is going to quote your press release; they probably won’t even read it.

Stop using and thinking about press releases as a primary means of communication.

Stop thinking about how you can manipulate a new study to fit a flimsy news hook.

Start turning your expertise into authority and communicating that with the audiences that need to hear from you.

Use the press when it makes sense. Stop relying on them.