One of the things that I learned was the need to simplify the message to make it digestible for a news audience. News releases in particular are written very carefully to fit the requirements of media outlets (for example, each paragraph of a news release contains only one sentence!) and we were advised to use non-technical non-complex language and to tailor the message to the intended audience. Less rather than more detail was usually recommended. How to incorporate statistics - the meat of most research findings - into the press release proved to be particularly challenging. Also, the need to include "soundbites" or "quotable quotes".
Those who would like better reporting of the uncertainties and complexities surrounding medical developments will have to work much harder to influence media coverage than those promising miracle cures.
Norman Swann, from ABC Radio National's Health Report suggests that "researchers should complain when they see things done badly, which should make a difference because the line of least resistance should be to do things well". Melissa Sweet, another health reporter, writing in the same issue of the Medical Journal of Australia points out: "Those who would like better reporting of the uncertainties and complexities surrounding medical developments will have to work much harder to influence media coverage than those promising miracle cures."
This raised a concern for me. Is it scientifically ethical to simplify our message and emphasize or exaggerate things to make them more newsworthy?
The workshop also included a presentation from a University researcher with a considerable public profile. He described his interactions with the media in a largely positive light, and felt it was his duty as a publically funded researcher to ensure that his research findings reached the public and could be understood by them.
So maybe its unethical not to use the media to increase awareness of research?
Its clear that the quality of some media reporting of health research is not up to the standard we would like. The question for me is: who is at fault - the researcher or the journalist?
(I should note that at the University of Adelaide press releases are written by the media unit in consultation with the researcher but understanding what should go in one was a worthwhile activity, even if unlikely to be used directly.)