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Overcoming misinformation about science in the media

Misinformation about scientific results is omnipresent in the media with claims such as ‘Treating with statins a waste of time' or ‘Hot tea causes cancer’. In this session we discuss ways to overcome this type of misinformation, from both a theoretical and practical standpoint. We present a series of papers that look at the interaction between scientists, press officers, journalists and readers in transforming health news.

Are academic press releases that are carefully aligned with the evidence less newsworthy? How do researchers work with press information officers? Does communicating caveats disengage readers? Can expert quotes help readers in making sense of science news? And is myth busting an effective method for overcoming misinformation?

Our speakers are academics and science communication practitioners from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands with backgrounds ranging from psychology to communication science. We will limit the presentation of each of the papers to at most ten mintues and aim for a lively discussion with the participants of this session about how to overcome misinformation about science in the media.

The order of our papers will be:

1. Petroc Sumner - Claims of causality in health news: A randomised trial

2. Roy Meijer - How do (should?) researchers work with their public information officers?

3. Ionica Smeets - Independent expert quotes as an indicator for better science news

4. Aimée Challenger - Is myth busting an effective method for overcoming misinformation?

Author: Ionica Smeets
Leiden University, Netherlands

Independent expert quotes as an indicator for better science news

Many journalism guidelines state that when you are reporting about science news, you should always consult an independent expert and quote this expert in your news item. These quotes can have a sobering effect on exaggerated claims. For instance, in the news hype after a study that found an association between nut consumption and a lower death rate, one expert commented: “I would be nuts to think that eating nuts alone would add years to my life.” We hypothesised that these independent expert quotes could be an indicator for readers that the news they are reading is aligned with the evidence. We tested this in British and Dutch news articles on health news, using data from previous studies on exaggeration in health news. We found that, indeed, articles that quote independent experts contain less exaggerations of causal relations. However, we also found that articles with such quotes are depressingly rare, with less than 10% of articles quoting an external source. Ionica Smeets will discuss these findings from two perspectives: from the academic viewpoint and as a journalist. She has been working as a science journalist since 2005 and came back as a professor of science communication to Leiden University (the Netherlands) in 2015, because she wanted to find evidence-based approaches for improving science news.

Claims of causality in health news: A randomised trial

Speaker: Petroc Sumner
Cardiff University, United Kingdom

Misleading news claims can be detrimental to public health. We aimed to improve the alignment between causal claims and evidence, without losing news interest. We tested two interventions in press releases, which are the main sources for science and health news: (a) aligning the headlines and main causal claims with the underlying evidence (strong for experimental, cautious for correlational) and (b) inserting explicit statements/caveats about inferring causality. The trial included press releases related to human health (N = 312; control = 89, claim alignment = 64, causality statement = 79, both = 80) from nine UK press offices (journals, universities, funders). Outcomes were news content (headlines, causal claims, caveats) in English-language international and national media (newspapers, websites, broadcast; N = 2257), news uptake (% press releases gaining news coverage) and feasibility (% press releases implementing cautious statements). Our results showed that news headlines and claims were better aligned to the evidence when the press releases were also aligned. This was also true for causality statements/caveats. There was no evidence of lost news uptake for press releases with aligned headlines and claims or causality statements/caveats. Feasibility was demonstrated by a spontaneous increase in cautious headlines, claims and caveats in press releases compared to the pre-trial period. Psychologist Rachel Adams will show how this trial demonstrates that news claims —even headlines— can become better aligned with evidence without harming news interest. Findings from our as-treated analysis are correlational and may not imply cause, although here the linking mechanism between press releases and news is known. Our intention-to-treat analysis was insensitive due to spontaneous adoption of interventions across conditions.

How do (should) researchers work with their public information officers?

Speaker: Roy Meijer
Delft University of Technology, Netherlands

Scientists in general are not very happy when their research gets misrepresented - for whatever reason - in the media. In the long run, it’s not helpful for the reputation of their institute either, which is of course what concerns press officers, or at least, that is the common assumption. Key to making sure things go right when scientists interact with the media lies mainly in the preparation of an interview and in managing expectations, in this case mainly the expectations of the scientist (although journalist’s expectations could sometimes also do with some management). What is realistic to expect when you are being interviewed, and how much control do you have as the interviewee over that situation? Expectation wise: how much actual ‘air time’ or coverage can you expect to see back from that hour long interview? (Spoiler: maybe as much as 20 seconds in the TV item or one small quote in the whole article.) And where does that misleading headline come from? Press officers (or PIO’s - public information officers) should play a key role here, being the intermediary between the fast and furious world of journalism and the slow and nuanced world of science. As PIO of Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) Roy Meijer will talk about what their communication department actually offers scientists in the way of practical (media) advice, services and damage control and what in their experience and view counts as impact in the real world. He will moreover answer the question how it is possible that a press release and the related newspaper article can sometimes be published at the exact same moment.

Is myth busting an effective method for overcoming misinformation?

Speaker: Aimee Challenger
Cardiff University, United Kingdom

Beliefs based upon misinformation can be problematic as they are typically stronger and more resilient to correction than those based upon ignorance. For example, the fallout from the erroneous link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism is still being felt today. The World Health Organisation recently announced that the UK have lost their measles free status. Myth busting, whereby misinformation is presented alongside a corrective fact, is often employed by public health campaigns. Counterintuitively, some research has reported that myth busting can backfire. Backfire effects occur when repetition of the myth reinforces the misinformation and subsequently the fact is forgotten. Aimée Challenger will talk about whether myth busting can successfully debunk misinformation about influenza vaccinations, or whether this common strategy backfires. Influenza vaccinations are recommended for healthcare workers annually but historically uptake has been low. The first phase of the study did not find a backfire effect for either flu or diet-related myth busting in members of the general population. The second phase of the study examined posters with or without myth busting on vaccination intentions and attitudes in members of the general population. The third phase of the study tested myth busting posters in healthcare workers.

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