Friday, January 18, 2013

Science Press Releases: Good, Bad or Zombies?

At the ScienceOnline2013 meeting, less than two weeks away, Nadia Drake and I will be moderating a session about science press releases: "Working towards better press releases: What do writers want?" Nadia is a science writer for, and I work in publicity for the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a NASA mission.

Press releases have been implicated in some infamous examples of science communication, where problems with the publicity have received as much attention as the science itself. Examples include arseniclife, a cunning kraken, and super-intelligent space dinosaurs. Our ScienceOnline2013 session will discuss how press releases should be improved, focusing on the needs and wishes of science writers. It's important for writers and scientists to debunk and dismantle the weak or shoddy claims made in some press releases, and I'm planning to attend a ScienceOnline2013 session about this, titled "“They said what?!”: Fighting bullshit in the scicomm ecosystem", led by Carl Zimmer and Brian Switek. However, our session offers writers a chance to suggest guidelines for improving source material before it goes public. These improvements won't prevent all cases of communication crap, but they should limit the flow.

A press release was behind these three infamous stories: arseniclife, the cunning Kraken and intelligent space dinosaurs. Credit: World News Network (upper left), Slate & Carl Zimmer (upper right), Nobu Tamura (lower left), Flickr user "anajonmary" (lower right) and (background)

Different Views of Press Releases

For our outreach group at the Chandra X-ray Center, a press release is a useful way to tell science writers and the public about the most interesting science results and images that our observatory are involved with, using language that is easier to comprehend than what is used in journal papers. Over 400 papers involving Chandra data are published each year, and that's a lot for writers to wade through looking for interesting results, especially considering that many other observatories are also prolific.

Here's an SAT-like analogy, for US-educated audiences. One can say that the press release is to the science result, like an agent is to an actor. The aim is for the agent to help the actor - who is hopefully talented and interesting - get noticed. If the agent or the agent's work becomes the story, then something has likely gone wrong. Similarly, if the press release becomes an important part of the story, rather than the science result, then something bad has likely happened.

Based on my observations using Twitter, some people think nearly all press releases are terrible, but there's a big selection effect involved here. People hear about press releases when they're problematic and attract attention, but many solid results generate widespread attention and have solid press releases behind them. In that case the press releases don't get noticed by many people, but the science does.

For others, press releases are like zombies or zombies-in-the-making. I've spotted articles like "The Press Release Will be Dead in 36 Months" and "Die! Press release! Die! Die! Die!" These articles were from 2008 and 2006 respectively. Press releases are still around, so either these predictions and hopes were unfounded or zombie press releases are on the loose!

Are Press Releases Used?

Are press releases alive, but routinely ignored by writers? (By writers I mean good writers.) No, at least some are noticed, as explained in this excellent article by Liz Neeley who interviewed a group of accomplished science writers Alan BoyleBryn NelsonChris JoyceEd YongErik VanceHillary RosnerMark Fischetti, and Susan Moran about press releases. (As an aside, Neeley, Boyle, Yong, Vance, and Rosner are all signed up for ScienceOnline2013.) One of the questions Neeley asked is: "Do you read press releases?" and the direct answers are "Yup", "I do", "I skim their headlines", "Absolutely", "Sometimes", "Yes, if they start with a headline", and "Yes, but not frequently". The "sometimes" answer comes from Hillary Rosner who says "I tend not to cover news", so that response comes with an asterisk.

Clearly press releases have some use for these writers, at least in providing tips about potential stories, and I know from experience that press releases lead to the majority of press coverage obtained for Chandra. Some of that involves churnalism and this is an important issue that I will mention briefly later in this post.

Improving Press Releases

There are two options for improving the science stories that are inspired or generated by press releases. Either the press releases should be improved or they should be phased out. I'll concentrate on the former option here. As stated earlier, an important goal of our ScienceOnline2013 session is to get advice from science writers on how to improve press releases. The writers interviewed by Liz Neeley give several suggestions, and I encourage you to read them.

Nadia and I have generated our own questions, including general ones: What are the minimum requirements for a good press release? How can we make press releases — which are generally one-size-fits-all — useful for news organizations with vastly different practices? Is there a way to make the process more efficient for both PIOs and reporters?

We also have a number of more detailed questions: Should attempts be made to explain the importance of a result, or is there too much potential for hype? How useful are quotes in press releases? How useful is it for PIOs to provide independent experts for comment and context? How much effort should be spent producing deeper context or background in case longer articles are being considered?

Serious suggestions have been made to phase out press releases, including the press release diet as proposed by Denise Graveline. In follow-up posts she gives more ammunition for this idea and gives options for alternatives to the press release. Graveline is not the only person thinking along these lines. Here is a list of 10 different alternatives to a press release.

There are other alternatives to the standard press release, including just posting a title, lede, and quotes, plus a link to the paper. We are interested to hear what people, especially writers, think about these possibilities.

Coming Up

In a future blog post I will give more details about how our Chandra outreach group searches for papers and how our press release packages are prepared. This future post will discuss our extensive review process, which is relevant to the ScienceOnline2013 session "Did anybody look at this !*%&#%@* press release?" led by Karl Leif Bates and Charles Choi, which I am also planning to attend. This session is a response to reports that scientists sometimes do not see the press release associated with their paper, and it may also discuss churnalism and the role of the public information officer. These are important issues.

As a further introduction to our session, co-moderator Nadia Drake is also planning a blog post to give her perspective on press releases, as a science writer, and I'm looking forward to seeing her thoughts.

We are encouraging feedback. How should press releases be improved? Should they be retained? What important questions or issues have we missed? We are interested in having a good discussion during our ScienceOnline2013 session, but we also welcome feedback and suggestions on this blog and on Twitter (use #betterpr). We recognize that attendance at this meeting is limited and there are also six other sessions being run in parallel with ours. These include some well-known names and discussions that I would have liked to attend myself!

Preliminary data suggests that the session "Spies, spacemen, seamstresses, and sailors: What science writers can learn from genre writing" is the most popular, with 27 people expressing an interest, at the time of writing. That's not surprising, given the talent and reputation of the moderators, Maryn McKenna and David Dobbs. All of the other sessions sound good, especially this one: "How to make sure you're being appropriately skeptical when covering scientific and medical studies" by Ivan Oransky and Tara Smith.

Below is the full list of sessions for February 1st at 10:30am. There are 9 other sessions with a similar format that are also packed full of interesting topics at this meeting, and there are other events scheduled too. I'm looking forward to these discussions and meeting a lot of different people. This will be my first ScienceOnline meeting, so I will finally get to see what I've been missing.

Session 5: Friday, February 1st, 10:30-11:30 am

Session 5AFormal science education, informal science education
and science writing
Marie-Claire Shanahan and Emily Finke3
Session 5BSpies, spacemen, seamstresses, and sailors:
What science writers can learn from genre writing
Maryn McKenna and David Dobbs4
Session 5CWorking towards better press releases:
What do writers want?
Nadia Drake and Peter Edmonds6
Session 5DThinking beyond textBen Lillie and Rose Eveleth7a
Session 5EHow to make sure you're being appropriately skeptical
when covering scientific and medical studies
Ivan Oransky and Tara Smith7b
Session 5FWhat’s news in citizen science?
Perspectives, people, projects, and platforms (part I)
Darlene Cavalier and Caren Cooper8
Session 5GThe world's largest explainerBlake Stacey and Khadijah Britton10


  1. I think the session will only tell part of the story if it limits the analysis to the utility of PRs for journalists. These get shared via social media and presented as news at sites like PhysOrg and Science Daily. Because of that, Karl Bates at Duke has argued that they need to be written as if you (the press officer) were preparing a news article.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and I agree that the session will only tell part of the story. I didn't want the session's discussion to be too wide-ranging and unfocussed, and so I picked just one of the different types of audience that a press release reaches. Science writers are definitely an important audience, given their reach. Also, in terms of generating discussion, I know a lot of science writers attend this meeting and follow articles about it on Twitter.

      You're right that press releases often get presented at some web-sites as news, and elsewhere they only receive light edits before being presented as news stories. So, the idea by Karl Bates of writing press releases like news stories has some merit, by deliberately targeting the audience these releases reach, which in this case is the public. However, there's a problem with this idea: press releases, no matter how carefully researched and written, are not true news stories. One of the goals of a press release is self-promotion, which means that further blurring the line between press releases and news stories - that is between public relations and journalism - might be interpreted as confusing or even deceptive. By labeling something as a press release and writing it in a press release format, we're maintaining some of this distinction between public relations and journalism. I followed an interesting Twitter debate about this topic.

  2. Speaking as a writer coming from a professional science background, I read press releases primarily to see if the original paper is worth reading. In other words, I think of press releases as advertisements for the research in question.

  3. Peter Edmonds says zombie press releases are on the loose!

    Kinda bit you in the arse, huh? ;-)

    Sometimes what I find most damaging is not the press release itself but the build up to the press release raising expectations way out of proportion. Case in point, arsenic life. We heard for days that NASA was going to make a HUGE announcement; then everybody was let down (a bug in a lake? pff!), and it even turned out the science was questionable.

    I can't be hurt like that again, Peter, I just won't be able to take it.

  4. In the areas that I cover, the biggest issue with press releases is that in areas where there is legitimate conflicting evidence (which pretty much describes most of science)many writers fail to seek outside sources with a differing viewpoint. If you don't know any, as Daniel DeNoon said over at AHJC, this is where PubMed can be your new best friend.

    If there are conflicting viewpoints the writer should frame them in meaningful context.

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  6. A News release is a written statement to the media. They can announce a range of News release items, including scheduled events, personnel promotions, awards, new products and services, sales accomplishments, etc. They can also be used in generating a feature story. Reporters are more likely to consider a story idea if they first receive a News release. It is a fundamental tool of PR work, one that anyone who's willing to use the proper format can use. We'll show you how.

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  8. I interested in the question "How useful is it for PIOs to provide independent experts for comment and context?" What were the results of the Scio13 discussions on this question?

  9. Thanks Paige for your question. I decided to send questions about press releases, including this one, to science writers and to publish the full answers and some analysis in a journal paper ("Communicating Astronomy to the Public"). I've been slow to get to this, but I've gone over the answers and started writing. For this question I received nine answers. Five writers mentioned that independent experts provided by PIOs could be useful, three writers mentioned they would be suspicious about how objective or independent the experts would be and four writers mentioned they wanted to find their own sources. Not surprisingly there are overlaps here, e.g. some writers said the comments could be useful but they'd be suspicious of them.

    I hope this helps. I'll plan to blog about the paper when it's finished and I'll try to remember to contact you about it.

    1. Oh my, this is directly relevant to my research!!!! Do please let me know when you are done blogging about it, and DEF when the paper is finished. I am currently preparing to submit a paper for peer-review where I added independent quotes to press releases, showed them to journalists and asked journalists how newsworthy they thought the press releases were. I'll probably reference your blog post in my paper before I send it in for review, if you blog soon!

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