[Editor's note: On Feb. 18, four days after this post was written, the Washington Post said it would stop reprinting university and other press releases in its Health & Science section.]
Did you see the story in last Tuesday's Health & Science section of The Washington Post about how women find Tour de France leaders more attractive than the riders bringing up the rear? The study shows "that we can assess a man's endurance performance by looking at his face." And you can turn that around: "Attractive riders are, therefore, faster," said the researcher quoted in the story.
Or how about this piece, from the week before: "Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don't," says a researcher at Stanford. And groups that ostracize untrustworthy members do even better, he says. He concluded with this insight: "When people know others may talk about their reputation, they tend to behave more generously."
I wouldn't pay much attention to stories about gossip and hot cyclists if I saw them in Perez Hilton or TMZ, but these stories showed up in one of the nation's leading newspapers–and in the science section, no less, where we can assume they were carefully reported.
Alas, that would be an unwarranted assumption. The first story was a reprint of a press release from the University of Zurich (also here on Eurekalert, a distributor of press releases) that contained no reporting by the Post. Further, while the study was published in a journal called Biology Letters, the Post unfortunately clipped that out; it gives no indication where or whether the study was published. (The study was cleverly lampooned by Bill Andrews at Discover, who wrote, "We all know the more attractive among us get all the breaks, but science has just shown one more benefit to being really, really, ridiculously good looking: riding a bike faster. No, really.")
And the story about the value of gossip? That wasn't a Post story either; it was a lightly trimmed reprint of a press release from Stanford University, made available through Eurekalert. Is it a legitimate story? Without a reporter to ask other scientists about its validity and where it fits in the context of other research, readers cannot know.
Let's be clear: The aim of Stanford press releases is to promote Stanford; not to enrich the readers of The Washington Post. The same is true of the University of Zurich's releases. And of all the other releases that have been reprinted in the Post.
And the aim of the Post is–or should be–something quite different. And the paper says so in a lengthy credo on its website. "Through lively, sometimes humorous, but always rigorously researched stories, we try to separate the truths from the half-truths to help people make smarter HEALTH & SCIENCE care choices for themselves and their families." It goes on: "We insist on getting information from the most reliable sources—the respected authorities in a particular field and the most solid studies in peer-reviewed medical journals. We’re fiercely independent of any commercial interest or advocacy group." And that would include doctors and universities?
Setting the quality of these studies aside for a moment, what is the Washington Post doing reprinting press releases? The Post's website groups the Health & Science Section under national news. Is the Post so strapped that it can't report its own national news, but instead must give over its pages to universities trying to promote themselves? Would the Post, with its history as an aggressive government watchdog, turn over its pages to press releases from the government?
And maybe we shouldn't be so quick to set aside the questionable quality of the two stories I've mentioned. A bit of reporting might have persuaded the Post's editors that these stories should not have been done–or it might have uncovered reasons why they were more important than the press releases make them seem.
Other recent press releases published in the post include "Why baby talk is good for your baby" from the University of Washington; "Men have a harder time remembering things than women do" from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology; "Despite warnings, about 24,000 kids are hurt annually in shopping car accidents," from Nationwide Children's Hospital; and "Too many men take testosterone when they don't need it," from the Endocrine Society, which represents endocrinologists and reports, on its website, that it got coverage of its testosterone release in The Washington Post!
These press releases appear in print and online, under the rubric "Study Hall." At the top of each story online, the Post's editors write, "Study Hall presents recent studies as described by researchers and their institutions." And they identify the institution that issued the release.
I was curious how long the Post had been running these releases. "A couple of months," said Pooh Shapiro, one of two editors who are responsible for the Tuesday Health & Science section. "It was kind of born out of frustration about how many interesting things are out there and how hard it is to get coverage," she told me Friday in a telephone interview.
Shapiro said she finds the releases on Eurekalert. "They have tons and tons of good studies there, and they tend to be good quality studies. There are a lot of things there that are interesting and don’t get covered, and this was a way to present it to our readers," she told me. Eurekalert is run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is not neutral with regard to science coverage. On its website, it says it is "dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people." That might be a worthy goal, but it shouldn't be the Post's goal.
The Health & Science section runs in the neighborhood of 14-15 stories a week, and that can include one or two press releases from Eurekalert–or sometimes none, Shapiro said. I asked whether the Post couldn't get enough copy from the Associated Press and other supplemental new sources to drop its reliance on press releases. "There’s not as much science out there as you’d think, especially when you’re putting together a section, if you take out science policy and health policy which are done very well by our people in the A section," she said.
I'm a former AP science editor, and I'd guess that the AP puts out dozens of science and medical stories each week, including, as a matter of routine, stories on the most newsworthy studies in Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, and other journals. I don't see the AP wire any more, so I can't challenge Shapiro's assertion that the AP doesn't give her enough; but I can raise the question.
Shapiro didn't seem bothered by the practice. Midway through our conversation, I said, "The thing is, I'm going to write a post saying this is a really, really bad idea." I thought that would get a response. "Readers are going to think they're reading stories from the Washington Post," I said.
"I have more faith in readers than I think you do," she said. "We put it [the source of the releases] right at the top. I do think readers are smart."
If they are smart enough to see what's going on, I suspect many might have the same question I did when I learned about this:
Are the universities and doctors paying for placement in the Post?
"No," Shapiro said.
If I ran the Washington Post, and I were going to run press releases–I'd start charging.