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Immunology and the Media: getting it right

Mass media graphic

‘Blocking brain inflammation halts Alzheimer’s disease’, ‘Neanderthal genes boosted our immunity’, ‘Life-extending hormone bolsters immune function’ – these are just a few of the news headlines that came across my desk in one week of running the BSI press office. Add to that the more lifestyle related articles such as – ‘When going to work with the flu isn’t heroic, just selfish’, ‘14 things people who feel they have a great immune system say they do’, ‘Why is there so much opposition to the HPV vaccine?’ – and you can see the BSI has a lot of ground of cover when it comes to the media!

The public’s appetite for all matters immunology-related (even if they don’t always realise it) is insatiable. Immunology is one of the most written about and discussed topics in all of health science, and for that, we should be incredibly grateful. It means our subject is of relevance and importance to people’s everyday lives, it brings stronger public support for funding research in this area and, let’s face it, it goes to show that immunology and its findings are just plain cool (although hopefully I am preaching to the converted here!).

Misrepresentation in the press

Believe it or not, the UK is somewhat ahead of the field in that most national news outlets have specialist health and science reporters who cover these types of stories, and overall the quality of reporting is fairly good. However, we can all name a time when we’ve opened the morning paper and groaned to see a poorly reported story misinterpreting the science or hugely exaggerating the implications of research. This is disappointing from the point of the researchers and immunology community who have a vested interest in seeing the results properly communicated. What’s far more concerning however is the effect that this may have on patients at a time when they and their families are vulnerable – claims of a miracle cure can induce false hope followed by additional heartache.

With immunology in particular, these misconceptions can have a huge effect on public health – just think of the impact even now of the MMR stories from the ’90s. Every day, members of the public need to make decisions about their own health and treatment using factors that immunology research contributes to. Vaccines, allergies, autoimmune conditions – these are all common medical subjects upon which it’s important that the public have access to reliable, evidence-based information, and news stories represent a significant method by which this information is accessed. With the advent of personalised medicine, cancer immunotherapy and potential antibody treatments for Alzheimer’s on the horizon (to name but a few), the omnipresent nature of immunology in the medical field is only set to increase, making the way that immunology news stories are reported even more important. 

Who’s to blame? 

A recent study in the BMJ 1 set out to identify where in the supply stream changes or exaggerations to a study’s main conclusion started, be it with the journalist, press release or original paper. They found that exaggeration in news stories was strongly associated with exaggeration in the press releases on which those stories were based, i.e. on the whole (although not in every case), the journalists were only repeating the claims made in the press release, not building on them. Overall, 40% of press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% exaggerated causal claims and 36% exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. These figures are pretty startling and suggest that we certainly can’t lay all the blame for misrepresentation of findings at the door of journalists.

Press release pressures

And so, to the press release… Writing a successful press release is a tricky skill to master. Traditional wisdom states that you have seven seconds to be appropriately witty and relevant to catch the attention of your journalist. Combine that with the fact that you need to bring together public friendly language with an exact grasp of facts involved and you see that writing a press release is an art in itself. The press release should be a joint project between the press office and the researchers involved, and both parties need to take some responsibility for getting it right.

Immunology is one of the most written about and discussed topcis in all of health science, and for that, we should be grateful.

Now, you may ask why do journalists take press releases at face value and not check the facts behind them? Well, one answer is time. It’s worth remembering the extreme pressure that health and science journalists at national newspapers are now under. They are routinely expected to file three to five stories per day, each of 800 words. Could any of us claim to be able to write with 100% accuracy on topics we weren’t familiar with in that time scale?

One thing that can help is easy access to independent and reliable comment on stories, and this is where the BSI media office comes in. Through our network, we can put journalists in touch with experts who can provide external comment on immunology stories. This is crucial as it allows the journalist to put the findings into context and assess the view of the scientific community on the work, thus hopefully leading to more accurate reporting.

So, what can you do?

As well as the BSI working as an organisation with the media, there are lots of things you yourself can do to address misreporting in the news.

1. Work with your press office.

If you are approached by a press officer to do some media work on your research, be it from your university, funding body or a journal, be active in the process and work with them to produce a press release. If you think the draft release has misinterpreted or over-exaggerated your results, say so. Press officers are generally friendly folk and will thank you for pointing this out and be pleased you are actively engaged in the process. Press releases are a collaboration between the researcher and the press officer and it is the responsibility of both parties to ensure the information contained in it is accurate.

2. If you see something wrong, tell us.

The BSI press office monitors the news daily for immunology stories but we are always keen to hear from members if you spot an article where you think reporting has been suboptimal. Depending on the situation, there are a number of actions the BSI can take, for example, writing to the letters page of the newspaper or producing our own blog on the research to set the record straight.

If we are aware that there is a recurrent problem with a particular topic, we can also work on a longerterm basis. For example, last year we partnered with Sense About Science to produce the ‘Making Sense of Allergies’ booklet.2 This was in response to many news reports, online discussions, and so on, which were promoting fake allergy tests and misrepresenting the science around the causes and treatments of allergy. To develop this resource, some of the leading scientists and clinicians working on allergy were brought together to produce a booklet providing the public with accurate, evidence-based information on what we do and don’t know about allergies. As well as making considerable headlines with its launch (including BBC Radio 4 Today programme and front pages of The Times and Daily Telegraph), the booklet now acts as a long-term resource for us to use to improve the reporting around allergy.

3. Get media training.

Media training is available through various routes and is a great way for you to acquire the skills needed to contribute to public debates on immunology and feel confident in  doing so.

The BSI is currently recruiting for members to become media spokespeople on various topics, with free media training provided as part of this. Additionally, media training is available free of charge through some research funders, e.g. BBSRC.3 For early-career researchers, Sense About Science run regular free media workshops to encourage participation in public debates.4 Media training is a great way to boost your CV. It can help you  to develop transferable skills, and can lead to new ways to promote your research to a wider audience.

Representation of immunology in the press is a topic that we should all care about. By working together with its members, the BSI hopes to engage with the press to improve the scope, depth and accuracy of reporting on immunology.

Jennie Evans
Communications Manager,
British Society for Immunology
j.evans@immunology.org

If you are interested in becoming a BSI media spokesperson or have any queries on working with the media, please do get in touch.

References

  1. Sumner et al . 2014 British Medical Journal 349 g7015
  2. Sense About Science 2015 Making Sense of Allergies. http://bit.ly/1PNxecB
  3. BBSRC media training – http://bit.ly/1ZNnOTU
  4. Sense About Science. Standing up for science workshops  http://bit.ly/1PfZgBp

Further resrouces

The Science Media Centre produces a series of guides that list effective ways of talking to journalists within the context of a short interview about various issues that cut across the sciences. 

NHS Behind the Headlines service provides unbiased and evidence-based analysis of health stories that make the news. It’s a useful place to start to see how to put arguments on scientific method etc. across to a more general audience.

Image credit: Shutterstock 
 

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