Competition for space or good play exerts a "distorting influence" on the media as it tries to cover science, but "a more substantial share of the blame" for "hyped" coverage of such a complex subject belongs to the scientific research community, according to a study by a Harvard analyst.
In an article in the spring issue of Health Affairs, a quarterly, Jay A. Winsten, director of the Office of Health Policy Information at the Harvard School of Public Health, reports on a series of interviews with science and medical journalists from the nation's major newspapers, magazines and television.
Because science reporters are sometimes considered "the backbenchers of big-time journalism," even at their own publication, they feel pressured to "overstate . . . to come as close as we can within the boundaries of truth," as one unnamed reporter is quoted as saying.
But the study concludes that the media alone do not deserve all the blame for hype and distortions. Along with the familiar camera-shy scientist or the researcher who cooperates in order to explain or educate the media, "a third, increasingly prominent group has emerged within science which has sought to exploit the press in pursuit of individual and institutional advancement."
Commenting about one set of scientific researchers, for example, Winsten says: "With increasing frequency, some biological scientists in the most competitive fields, caught up in a high-stakes race to capture priority for major advances, are using the media to attach their names to important findings before their competitors do."
Winston also criticizes physicians, surgeons and dentists who try to get media coverage "in an effort to attract new patients."
And he criticizes one New England university for publishing the results of a preliminary study on Alzheimer's disease which involved only four patients -- a study that drew such headlines as "Researchers Describe Possible Alzheimer's Cure" or "Scientists Find First Breakthrough Against Alzheimer's."
"There is some hype -- competition for the research dollar, a tendency of institutions to publicize their stuff," agreed Matt Clark, medicine editor for Newsweek.
"Some of the genetic engineering people, they are calling a press conference on some discovery before it is even published -- and that almost never happened before," Clark said.
"You have this kind of thing with the artificial heart. It's a circus," Clark continued. "Here's a company that's running a hospital chain, and it's basically doing this because they are hoping they are going to get a lot of customers."
The problems of covering science have long been a topic of discussion among journalists trying to translate highly technical material into language that ordinary readers or viewers can understand -- trying to make it simple enough without making it untrue.
"I think there is a problem with the premise under which Winsten took this study," said Barbara J. Culliton, news editor of Science magazine. "A number of scientists, physicians and, I guess, a few science journalists believe that science reporters should be either schoolteachers or textbook writers, which is nonsense."
Saying she believed that most science reporters did "pretty well," Culliton added that she believed Winsten's interviews "with a handful of experienced journalists" resulted in "merely anecdotal data which reflects issues journalists have been discussing for decades.
"This is not a landmark study," she added.
The importance of the work, several journalists said, is that it might make both journalists and researchers more careful about how they portray what is often publicized as a major breakthrough but is really a small step toward a distant cure or solution.
"You hear it so often from people who cover science or medicine for the dailies or for television where editors want something more emphatic than 'we think it's possible that we may have found what could be something responsible for AIDS,' " said Dan Greenberg, who publishes a newsletter called Science and Government Report.
"On the other hand, I also find that many institutions with tall ambitions and short budgets are persuaded that a good PR office can improve their fortunes," Greenberg said, adding that in recent years he has seen a "much more aggressive approach" by scientists trying to get media coverage.
Fred Golden, assistant managing editor of Discover magazine, said: "I'm sure everybody's guilty, but I think reporters are more manipulated than manipulating."
Golden added in most instances, the reporters covering science are people who are interested in the subject and "are almost in awe of the people doing the work . . . If you're covering the space program, for example, it's almost like you're part of the club."
Winsten concludes that despite some excesses by science reporters and their organizations, "the overall quality of news stories written by experienced science reporters is better than might be expected."
However, he suggests that the media should give more attention to the limitations of studies they cover, they should rely less on single-source stories "reflecting the bias of an individual scientist" and there should be greater emphasis on "trends" in research.
The article also suggests that there are areas of research currently being neglected by the media -- like chemistry, for example. It also says that news stories discussing risk should include comparisons to other risks known to readers.