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14Feb 2014

Want your university press release reprinted in The Washington Post? Here's how.

Want your university press release reprinted in The Washington Post? Here's how.

[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.

-Paul Raeburn











Yes, I do want my university press release reprinted in the Washington Post, that's what I live for as a science-writing PIO from an R1.

University PR seems to have changed. In days past, PIOs wanted their releases covered or reported in the Washington Post.

Reprinted is far from an endorsement. All it means is that this shower wants to fill space. The reader should see it as  no more than puffery.

Of course, journalists with much in the way of self respect and nous don't take the lead from press releases anyway, unless they are under the thumb of an editor who demands quantity rather than quality.

So a straight reprint is the only way that, in an ideal world, PIOs would get any coverage for press releases. To get real coverage they would have to do something more intelligent and time consuming.

I look forward to the day when the Washington Post fills space previously used to cover politics with press releases from the Tea Party. 

"If I ran the Washington Post, and I were going to run press releases--I'd start charging." 

Exactly! This is sponsored content -- unfortunately without the sponsorship dollars.  Label it clearly as paid promotion and send a bill.  Everybody wins.

What makes this even more disturbing is that the Post has more than the AP to draw upon. It has content sharing agreements with Science, Science News, and more--all for free!--and yet the best it can do is print press releases? Steve--answer this. Do you want to see press releases from the DC government in the Metro section, or a play review in the Style section written by the theater company.  Shapiro needs to ask if this would fly for any other beat in the Post. Why do we treat science differently. I respect PIOs who write well--many better than I, but the Post has no clue if these are "good" studies if all they do is read the press release.

Tom asks, "But would you or your office do additional reporting to determine whether a researcher's claims are legitimate, as a good reporter should?"

We write about peer-reviewed research accepted for publication or published by the world's leading scientific journals after that research has been determined to be legitimate. Repeatability of new research is a pubication requisite.

Tom asks, "Would you or your office check to see whether others have earlier made the same claim?"

The scientific journal pre-publication peer review and revision process does just that. Published research is new findings or the confirmation of prior findings that may have been incomplete or able to be expanded upon. Redundant submissions are not accepted by journals, the work doesn't get published and press releases don't get written about it.

Tom asks, "Do you give equal credit to collaborators at other institutions, allowing them to review your drafts for accuracy too?"

If the work is collaborative, then yes, that is the norm for our office. We share press releases with PIOs and researchers from other institutions who are co-authors on any work in questions. And the peer review process prior to this is just that, collaborators at other institutions who are reviewers at this publications reviewing drafts for accuracy.

Tom asks, "And would you say that the aim of your office is to educate and inform the public? Or is it to promote the university?"

It is clearly both. We rarely work with the elite science writers, but primarily with regional journalists who appreciate the educative nature of press releases designed to make complex research understandable. It might well be compared to the software media corporations like Gannett have used to measure text difficulty and "grade level" readibility prior to the publication of news stories.

With all this said, I do ultimately agree: This is not journalism and the disclaimer at WaPo that the items are "recent studies as described by researchers and their institutions" clearly confirms just that. So I think we ultimately want the same thing, a place to find quality journalism on science and every other topic, even if "recent studies as described by researchers" accompany that journalism on the same page.

The real issue is the news gathering model that historic news agencies are using is broken and in transition. An interested party can easily go to 20, 30, 100 different locations - from blogs, press releases, the websites of the researcher in question and those of researchers around the world working on the same thing, to in many cases, the journals themselves, accumulating the knowledge necessary to form their own opinions.

Whether or not those opinions are based on accurate information, that is the call of journalism - to separate the wheat from the chaff - and a new, innovative model for this may be on the horizon: umbrella non-profits where collaborations between journalists, information scientists, policy analysts and others create a new infrastructure, a new information ecosystem, for news production and dissemination. I'm guessing that when impact weights are ciphered within that system press releases from science-writing PIOs will be just as regarded as the vast majority of news stories.

Paul's comment below, at 2:28 pm, is right on target. 

Below that Steve Chaplin suggests that outside comment may be unnecessary because the university has done such a good job verifying what's in the handout. That misses the point. In such a case, the issue may be what's *not* in the release--that similar work was done elsewhere by someone else, that the reported results have been cherry picked from all available data (a common practice by drug manufacturers and dealers), that a rival lab challenges something about the research. And so on. And, of course, the release may not note the opinions of independent researchers who *like* the findings.

By the way, there is a healthy discussion of this very issue on Facebook today, partly generated by Paul's original post on this.



I'd be surprised if the Post couldn't find one or two stories a week from the AP and whatever other supplemental news services it receives. Those shouldn't cost any more than what's on Eurekalert.


I'm not surprised by anything you said in your comment, and I assume that at places that take care with their releases, the releases reflect the way the researcher wants his or her research portrayed.

But would you or your office do additional reporting to determine whether a researcher's claims are legitimate, as a good reporter should? Would you or your office check to see whether others have earlier made the same claim? Do you give equal credit to collaborators at other institutions, allowing them to review your drafts for accuracy too?

And would you say that the aim of your office is to educate and inform the public? Or is it to promote the university?

I'm all in favor of expert university public information offices. But press releases are not journalism.

Yes, I do want my university press release reprinted in the Washington Post, that's what I live for as a science-writing PIO from an R1.

Sure, attribute as such as the work-around for the media corporations that have dumped 60-70 percent of their editorial staff, including fact-checkers (if those even existed in the first place) to appease profit-centric shareholders.

You do realize that it is those former journalists (all five PIOs in our office are former print journalists) who are writing these press releases? You do realize that investigators review, critique and correct press releases before dissemination? And it's not prior-restraint's about accuracy as THEIR careers are on the line.

So yes, Paul, you can assume these verbatim press releases were carefully reported if they came from a public university where a career scientist's livelihood is on the line. And these days, I think that credibility is more secure than with the vast majority of pared-down, profit-focused media outlets. All I'd ask is that you'd give credit where credit is due.

If there is something amiss with a press release that an investigator, a PIO, a PIO's editor (in our office a former AP editor of 20-plus years), the vice provost of research, the department chair, the dean of the school doesn't catch prior to or on publication (is that enough gates to pass through?), I'd argue the scrutiny and analysis from an investigator's peers are far more entrenched and effective than any in place in the "news" industry. I mean, even EurekAlert has a line of effective editors who analyze every submission from a university or government agency.

And yes, the aim of a Stanford press release, or an Indiana University press release, is to promote that university, through accurate, interesting content that any reader might find meaningful. And where is that content generated from? A scientist with, in most cases, at least a quarter-century of formal education, including from five to 10 years of higher education specific to their field. Where is the logic that they would either participate in or allow a PIO to produce an inaccurate piece of public information, in turn endangering that career?

There may be a good reason a reporter can't controvert or generate the necessary cognotive dissonance around a university press release to boost page views, and that may well be the work is accurate to the degree it's been presented.

Of course, the nut of this piece should have been right here: "fiercely independent of any commercial interest or advocacy group." Try taking that to the shareholders when you ask why there is not enough media-generated science content out there to fill a news hole?

Paul, good catch. Presumably there's some science blogger out there who's actually doing original reporting, and wouldn't mind having a few stories published in the Post. Or a science website whose stories don't get many eyeballs, and might consider partnering with the Post to provide content. (a la NYTimes publishing stories from Climatewire.)

I'm assuming both of those options cost the Post more than printing press releases, though.




I don't have any problem with op-eds or commentaries, if they are clearly identified as such.

As you say, doctors and scientists are freelancers like any others, and the paper should edit their stories as thoroughly as it edits its own.



What do you all think of the practice by some newspapers, including the Times and Philly Inquirer, of using content that is written by doctors and researchers?  In our case, and I suspect at the Times, such pieces are edited by the newspaper, at times heavily in the case of people who do not normally write for a living.   We do not use many of these, and they are clearly identified as not being written by in-house staff.    In a sense, they are written by freelancers with advanced degrees.

I applaud the Tracker for looking at this. As a former science editor of The Washington Post, I am dismayed. This never would have passed muster in the old days. 

Even if the stories are labeled as from the interested party, they take up space that could have been used for independent journalism.

Pooh Shapiro has been at The Post for many years, including the days when Ben Bradlee was executive editor. I doubt Bradlee would have condoned this. I suspect she knows that.


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