Published on October 21st, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan2
Note To University Press Release Writers
In the world of academia, the common structure for writing is to first present a problem or uncertainty and then present how your research responds to that. Academics know not to be influenced by the stated problem or question but to rather wait and see what the findings of the research are. However, beyond the world of academia, this is often not the case. Research has shown that presenting a myth (without very clearly stating a myth) before debunking it with your scientific findings actually reinforces the myth. It has the opposite effect than desired. Yet, this is how researchers and university press release writers continue to communicate.
Time after time, I read university press releases that make this mistake. As someone trying to educate the public and stop the spread of misinformation, this is very frustrating.
I don’t anticipate that I will alone be able to turn the tide in this arena. This is a huge problem based on a pattern that has probably been developed over many decades. Furthermore, it’s easier for a press release writer to follow the pattern/sequence of the research when presenting it to the public than to really change things up for this different audience. And researchers who are presenting their own work also often do not differentiate much between their audiences or work to skip the all-too-common pattern of presenting a potential problem or myth before showing that it is not a problem/incorrect.
But it would be very helpful to society if this would change, so I hope that anyone reading this will work to address this problem, in your capacity as a researcher, press release writer, blogger, or reader/commenter. We all need to do our bit to stop the counterproductive presentation/reinforcement of myths and false problems.
As I said, I see this repeatedly. As just one example, though, check out this press release from a university in Madrid. There are three ways this immediately has the opposite effect than it should. First, it puts the “potential problem” (which the research shows is not a significant problem) right at the front of the title — in the place most seen, that will probably most sink in with the reader (who will probably not even read the article and may not even finish reading the title). Secondly, the rest of the title is accurate but complicated, making it harder for a common reader to understand and digest. Lastly, the press release writer spends a lot of time in the fourth and fifth paragraphs reinforcing the myth. This is unnecessary and counterproductive. Yes, it creates a sort of controversy or “(potential) problem” that press release writers and the press love, but as the research later shows, the potential problem is actually not a problem. The take-home point of the study is that wind power, even at a high penetration level, very clearly and strongly reduces the burning of fossil fuels and, thus, reduces pollution from CO2 and other emissions. A lay reader, however, will likely have the myth of the “problem” further engrained in their head. Don’t believe me? Read this research. (You can also read my version of the story here.)
To be honest, this is not the worst example out there. At least the writer waited until the fourth paragraph to start reinforcing the myth. At least she or he decided to present the key findings before presenting the false controversy. Many times, the writer will actually kick off the article with a couple paragraphs about the myth, without stating it has been found to be false. At that point, many readers have actually moved on or at least had the myth implanted somewhere in the recesses of their minds.
Unfortunately, many bloggers and journalists use the same pattern as the press release writers. It is very common at outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post. Whether it comes from a false expectation that readers will remember the “surprising” truth, from an effort to make the story more interesting, or from lazy reporting, the problematic result remains: a less informed public that has myths deeply embedded in its understanding of the world, which may actually make them act in a poor way.
I would love to never have to deal with myths or misunderstandings. It is not my favorite thing to do. But it is one of the key things I feel we at CleanTechnica must do. If we are to help society move forward with the clean technologies that we sorely need, we must work very hard to break down the myths in people’s heads. I hope that many more people will help us on this front. I hope that many more people will work to change the way that important research is presented. Please do your bit by sharing this article with others. I also encourage you to follow sites that debunk myths in the right way, and also share their content! Aside from CleanTechnica, top sites I highly recommend for this are Climate Progress and Skeptical Science, both of which mostly focus on global warming and climate change but also cover cleantech a bit. You are probably already readers of these sites, but if you are not, check them out.
Also, for more on this topic, I highly recommend Skeptical Science’s Debunking Handbook.
Image Credit: “press release” via Shutterstock