This blog post is based on a conversation between me (Suzanne Elvidge, freelance writer and journalist at Peak Words) and the #CoffeeBuddies, a virtual discussion group hosted by Graham Combe and chaired by Professor Tony Sedgwick. Book to join #CoffeeBuddies on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2.30 pm BST (GMT+1 hr) at Eventbrite.
News outlets, including print and online media, have not had a good reputation for reporting breakthroughs in science and medicine:
Why it's important to get science into the media
There are two key audiences for science and research in news media; the general population, and pharma industry personnel.
Unless they have a particular interest in science, lay people are often looking to find out how breakthroughs in science and medicine will affect their health and that of their families or friends. News in the mainstream media, in print or online is a way to educate people about the scientific process, how research really works, and how long drug development actually takes. And this has never been more important than during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Business development teams and management at C-suite level in the biopharma industry use the media, including specialist news publications and sites, and trade publications, to find out about new approaches, breakthroughs, technologies and techniques, and find collaborators. Investors use similar sources to see who needs funding and who could provide a return on investment.
Talking to the press
Good media coverage of research does depend on how the science is communicated by the scientists – it is the responsibility of both the scientist and the journalist. This means the interaction between the scientist and the journalist is very important.
Start by knowing both of the audiences – the journalist's level of knowledge, and the readers' knowledge and needs. Not all news stories are written by science writers, and not all science or health writers have a science background. Conversations and press releases need to be in the right language for the audience, in plain English without hyperbole, and without too much 'science speak' for a non-science audience.
It's important for scientists to speak on a level that people can understand - using jargon or high science terms can make the conversation complex and isn't worthwhile for the reporter or their audience – Lisa LaMotta, Editor-in-Chief, Risk & Regulatory Thought Leadership at PwC.
Journalists are busy people – those who are working for online daily news publications may be putting out anything from three to five or more stories a day. A good press release will increase the chance of getting a story noticed and published. Presented with a pitch or press release, the journalist will pick the one that is well written, contains good information, answers the right questions and includes feasible quotes over and above the one that is just PR fluff and insubstantial, generic quotes. Don't keep on calling journalists to see if they have received your press release, unless there is a good chance that it has gone astray, or there is something useful to add.
Hints and tips for a good release:
Tracking a piece of science research gives an idea of how different outlets report science, and where they get their information.
The original paper
The original paper, 'Padeliporfin vascular-targeted photodynamic therapy versus active surveillance in men with low-risk prostate cancer', was published in The Lancet Oncology. This paper compared vascular-targeted photodynamic therapy, derived from a sea-dwelling bacterium, with standard-of-care (watchful waiting) in men with low-risk prostate cancer and suggested that it was safe and effective and could defer or avoid more radical therapy.
The press release
The press release, entitled ' Light therapy effectively treats early prostate cancer', came from University College London. It's written in user-friendly language, and its statements and conclusions are much more definitive than those in the original paper. It also provides an image and some links.
The pieces in the Urology Times and Cancer Therapy Advisor both target physicians. They both use non-sensational language, and their conclusions are cautious, couched in a scientific and medical perspective. The key differences are that the Urology Times uses the press release as the source, including quotes, whereas the Prostate Cancer Advisor relies more on the original paper. To provide validation, the Prostate Cancer Advisor includes a perspective from a physician not included in the study.
Popular science press
IFL Science's approach to the story uses lay language but does not dumb down the story, and also uses some information from the press release to shape the piece. It pulls in background information to expand on the topic. Importantly, it says that the drug is not yet approved – this is from the press release and is vital in managing readers' expectations. The conclusion is positive, but the language remains measured
Newspaper coverage of science can be sensationalist, including titles with phrases such as: 'Researchers were shocked by results', 'Miracle drug', 'Results are astonishing', 'Blockbuster' or 'Cure'. The Telegraph's piece (now behind a paywall) emphasises 'complete remission for half of patients' in the title. The Daily Mail, a newspaper fond of capital letters, says that the 'bacteria… will kill prostate cancer in HALF of all patients'. The Sun (a paper with a strong male readership) highlights in its title that the treatment won't leave men impotent. Both The Sun and The Telegraph mention that the treatment isn't approved yet. As many newspaper stories leave people clamouring for a treatment that may be years away from approval, this confirms how important it is to include these details in the press release.
The story in all three newspapers is shaped very strongly by the press release. Each article has pulled in information from UK cancer charities to provide additional information for the readers; this also provides validation for the piece.
Learnings from the analysis