6 August 2020

Study says ‘churnalism’ could overstate research findings and exacerbate public mistrust of science

South African media outlets often republish science press releases almost verbatim as news without signalling that it wasn’t written by a journalist, a practice that could exacerbate public mistrust in science, a paper has found.

The paper, published on 3 August in the South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, compared 40 press releases published by four South African universities with 40 media articles based on the press releases.

“We found that most press releases are republished with minimal journalistic input and no crediting of the original source,” write the three authors, who are based at Stellenbosch University.

The authors targeted media outlets with the highest circulation numbers, and limited the review to one article per press release. Of the 40 articles surveyed, half had copied more than 50 per cent of the text from the corresponding press release. Only one article took a critical approach to the information provided in the press release, and many of the copied articles were passed off as having been written by staff.

A third of the articles also overstated the findings of the research they drew on. In five of the thirteen articles containing hype, the exaggeration came from the press release, while in the rest the hype was added by the publication.

Marina Joubert, a science communication scholar and one of the authors of the paper, reckons a range of factors have likely led to this situation. Dwindling science-writing capacity in publications is one key reason, she says.

At the same time, public relations offices in research organisations are becoming more sophisticated and well-staffed, she adds. “When they provide a well-written, ready-to-republish story, complete with quotes and visuals, it is not hard to see why churnalism would occur and increase.”

That’s not necessarily a problem as long as the source is given, she notes. “But it’s a problem when an institutional press release is presented as editorial copy with (one would expect) journalist input and oversight.”

Joubert believes media outlets and science PR professionals recognise the problem but “probably feel there’s not much to be done about it”. She notes that press officers can argue that this process ensures at least some science content reaches the public, while media outlets might say in their defence that they view universities and other research organisations as “credible sources” and that therefore bias is less of a concern.

She and her co-authors say journalists should arguably do a better job at fact-checking press releases. But that may not be realistic given that news budgets are shrinking, they write.

Instead, press officers should consider focusing less on their institutions’ reputation, and more on promoting balanced news, they conclude. “We suggest that universities should consider the options and benefits of moving towards a new science communication paradigm focused less on reputation-building and more on constructive public engagement and helpful dialogue with society.”

Read Churnalism and Hype in Science Communication: Comparing University Press Releases and Journalistic Articles in South Africa published on 3 August 2020 in the South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research.

This article by Linda Nordling is republished from *ResearchProfessional News. Read the original article.