Apocalypse Via Press Release

By Carl Zimmer | September 23, 2009 3:56 pm

MesaToday a team of scientists offer a new way of thinking about the environmental fix we’re in. In the words of one of the scientists, we’re driving around on a mesa in the dark with the lights off and without a map. We may fall off the edge of the mesa before we realize where the edge was.

The scientists argue for a safe operating space for the planet, which they propose should be bounded by limits on the carbon dioxide in the air and other factors. That way, we’ll stay away from dangerous thresholds and be able to pass on a healthy planet to our children.

I write about this concept today in Yale Environment 360. Nature, which is publishing the concept today, has posted it and a number of commentaries here.

Working on this story got me thinking (again) about the state of journalism. Because I’m teaching a class on writing and I’m a visiting scholar at NYU’s journalism school, I’m getting a bit meta . And there’s certainly plenty of food for metathought these days.

For example, last week a new site called Futurity was launched by a network of universities. The site publishes a selection of science-related press releases from the universities. As you can see, the site is well-organized and designed. As newspapers close science sections, you can’t help but look at Futurity and wonder if this is the future. And, in fact, Curtis Brainerd wondered just that in a piece he wrote last week for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Futurity justifies their existence as follows:

The way people share information is changing quickly and daily. Blogs and social media sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are just a taste of what’s to come. It will be easier than ever to share content instantly with people around the globe, allowing universities to reach new audiences and engage a new generation in discovery.

Equally significant has been the recent decline in science and research coverage by traditional news outlets. For decades, universities have partnered with journalists to communicate their work to the public, but that relationship is evolving. At the same time, research universities are among the most credible and trusted institutions in society, and now have the ability to deliver their news and information directly to readers without barriers or gatekeepers.

In an increasingly complex world, the public needs access to clear, reliable research news. Futurity does the work of gathering that news. Think of it as a snapshot of where the world is today and where it’s headed tomorrow. Discover the future. [Emphasis mine]

I don’t need to tell you that you should read everything I say about Futurity with the proviso that I am a reporter, and that I make my living in large part writing for magazines and newspapers. I do not write press releases. But, that being said, I would submit to you that for a university seeking to get out the message about its research, this argument about a decline of science coverage is not really an argument at all.

People who read pieces on Futurity will not come to it by watching television or by listening to the radio. They will come to it on the Internet, either as regular Futurity readers, as curious Googlers, or as readers of other sites following links. And on the web, arguments about declining coverage lose their traction because the same article that appears in a single publication can be read by millions and millions of people who do not actually subscribe to that publication.

What Futurity does do, however, is allow universities and research institutions to go straight to the reader. Originally, press information officers at these places wrote press releases, which, as the name implies, were things intended to get the attention of the press in the hopes that they’d cover something you’re doing. Futurity calls what it publishes “news,” but it’s still being written by employees of the organizations that are the subject of that news.

I have great respect for some public information officers; the stuff they write is, in some cases, wonderfully clear and informative. There’s good information to be had on Futurity. But I always treat press releases as a starting point. I do not, for example, assume that a piece of research is actually important just because a press release says it is. Imagine a press release with the headline, “Minor study published that is really not all it claims to be.” Such things just don’t exist.

As a result, press releases and university-penned news items have a serious shortcoming as “news.” Consider this story I just wrote. You can read the press release from the University of Minnesota (the home institution of a co-author) here. There are lots of quotes from people. All those people are co-authors. The press release quotes nobody who is not a co-author.

When I wrote my article, I interviewed several co-authors at length, and I also got in touch with a number of outside experts. Some liked it. Some didn’t. I mean, they really didn’t. They thought the whole idea of a safe operating space for civilization was meaningless from the start. Thus, my article was about a debate engendered by a new idea. These sorts of debates–with plenty of sharp elbows–are at the heart of the scientific process. But I don’t see how Futurity can reflect it.

I’m sure Futurity is here to stay, and so it will be up to readers to decide what kind of writing they want. Here, dear reader, is my sales pitch.

Comments (16)

  1. James Hathaway

    Well, as a university science PIO (admittedly not one whose university is involved in the Futurity project), I agree with you on all points. The problem with the concept is that it attempts to take the place of the independent press, yet it is not real independent reporting, with the requisite skepticism and inherently less-biased perspective that comes when a story is re-visited by a reporter. And yet the site also represents a filter — it does not present all PIO-generated science releases being put out, only those of the participating AAU universities that have paid-to-play, and not even all of their work, since the site selects and edits. Meanwhile, there still are sites like AAAS’s Eurekalert that already present all this information and more (sans well-designed graphics pages), with less editing, so readers can see the story as the scientists involved wanted it told. It’s very fuzzy to me what the benefit of Futurity is, either to science or to the public.

  2. I’m less concerned about the demise of print publishing than I am about the loss of truly independent reporting, science or otherwise. Not surprisingly — since I also make my living (or part of it) from writing for news outlets — agree with Carl 100% about the value of things like Futurity. Press releases and in-house science writing are great as a starting point; they make excellent blog fodder. But we should never mistake that for actual independent reporting. And I’m afraid many, many people cannot appreciate that distinction…

  3. I just covered Futurity today. The problem as i see it isn’t the fact that press releases are appearing in a context where they’re mistaken for a journalist’s reporting – that’s already happening on a few prominent science news sites, which reproduce press releases essentially verbatim.

    I do have two issues with it:
    There’s nothing on the site that necessarily indicates to the public the status of the material there, and its potentially one-sided perspective on matters. Instead, the site is set up to indicate that the service has been endorsed by serious universities, which suggests a credibility the content won’t necessarily deserve.

    There’s only one editor. Some press releases promote fringe ideas as if they were mainstream. Others promote interpretations of the data that aren’t in the publications the PR is based on. The lone editor has been given the job of culling these, and she just can’t have sufficient expertise to do that properly in all fields. And that’s a problem.

  4. Nice take on Futurity, Carl, but you miss a few points. John’s last comment — something I also shared with him today — is a fundamental weakness in the program. Futurity’s editor is said to select, from a buffet of offered university research stories, that will appeal to the public’s interest. It presupposes that the science writers who wrote the original submissions are clueless of public appeal. That’s ludicrous on its face.

    Secondly, the editor can alter the copy on a whim for the sake of presentation with no independent reporting, no conferring with the original author, and no review of the original research or discussion with the researcher involved. That makes Futurity nothing more than a fancy rewrite service, at best, and a potential for inaccurate science communication at worst.

    Equally telling is the fact that while Futurity could easily link back to the original story on the web — virtually all research universities post their releases there and have for years — but instead, they point to the generic institutional homepage. That’s hardly an argument that the Futurity site is trying to fill the emptiness caused by a loss of conventional media science writing.

    What this, and another half-dozen points that irk me, clearly demonstrates is that this is purely a marketing ploy by these institutions. And while the myriad of university press releases sent last week touting their partnership with the Futurity project arose from highly prestigious institutions, the list of those universities who have decided not to play is equally impressive.

    There is a need to supplement the current dwindling amount of science reporting available — most of which is extremely good — but suggesting that the approach Futurity’s supporters offer is the answer only reinforces thoughtful observers’ views that it is purely a gimmick.

    One answer would be for research universities to commit themselves to reporting on science in more of a true journalistic fashion, and to embrace the traits of accuracy, relevance, and context and reject the ploys meant to increase visibility for the institution. The simple truth is that if the research is good and important it will garner appropriate notice. In essence, let the news stand on its own and let the public decide.

    Some of us have being doing this for years. We need others to climb on board!

  5. Anne H

    This is another round-up site that I really enjoy: http://ksjtracker.mit.edu/

    It picks out interesting science topics, collects the current coverage of the topic, and editorializes a bit about how various writers or newspapers are covering it. The articles at the top of the site today are about artificial noses, meteor showers, and electric cars. There’s something here for the newspaper junkie as well as the curious reader.

  6. When the J-school let’s this scientist into class to talk about online science media, I say the same things I tell my pharm grad students: get the original paper and read what you can understand, then ask people in the field (not authors or otherwise affiliated with the research team) for their opinions. Like Mr Zimmer, I have several PIO colleagues whose writing and sober perspectives I respect. But, by and large, Futurity is likely to be a great, one-stop aggregator of press releases – no more.

  7. Whoops! Did I just type “let’s?” That is why I’m not a paid journalist.

  8. Eric the Leaf

    Regarding the story itself, I question the premise of maintaining the Holocene state. Even without human action, the Holocene state will not be maintained. The article says nothing about “maintaining” levels of human population, currently made possible by gargantuan energy subsidies obtained by the drawdown of ancient sunlight. The article fails to address biological overshoot.

  9. Gaythia

    I don’t believe that it is surprising that new marketing ploys have been invented for new media venues. Running press releases verbatim without attribution is nothing new. Nor has independent reporting always been available.

    Universities have generally published what are essentially promotional magazines. This website needs to be identified as being in that genre. Or editing needs to be brought in that helps it rise to a higher level.

    In the past, some print journals and newspapers managed to distinguish themselves from the “yellow journalism pack”. They became identified as reliable, independent and truthful sources of news.

    Mechanisms need to be developed that help the public sort through internet sources.

  10. I discussed Futurity with various people last week…it’s not a whole lot different from Newswise, AlphaGalileo, Eurekalert etc etc etc, except that it’s a PR machine run by the universities instead of being a repository for press releases. As bad as churnalism can be, at least it’s an editor or a journalist picking what’s interesting rather than the organizations promoting their own material.

  11. celia

    Maybe Futurity could increase its objectivity by paying some of the unemployed science writers (and even scientists not connected to the research) to read, comment, and ask questions (in lay language) about the posted items. If all of the universities kicked in for this “other viewpoint” service, the commentators would not be beholden.

    Beyond the site’s inherent conflict of interest (the interests of the readers vs. the universities in publicizing their research) I also worry about whether the Futurity editor is keeping an eye on the researchers’ conflicts of interest. At least a portion of the lousy research being put out by people with academic affiliations is being funded by commercial concerns.

  12. Michael Kenward

    You write:

    “But I always press releases as a starting point.”

    There is something missing in there. It could be important.

    “see”? “use”?

    Carl: “treat.” Thanks for catching that.

  13. Michael

    There is another side to this and that is more sociological: news consumption (or media consumption). in other words, how people get their news and information. Hopefully some journalism schools have research going on in this area (but in cases I’ve seen it is being done by other departments but not j-schools. Regardless, the point is that a growing number of consumers are looking for their news based on content and not based on the organization delivering it to them. The danger here is that a poorly research blog post can have as much power as a front page NYT article given that some readers don’t pay attention to the source or understand the importance of having an independent third-party journalist. the danger isn’t futurity, the danger is the news aggregators who repurpose the stories and feed them to people who cannot differentiate between PR and news.

  14. Jdhuey

    Whenever someone mentions ‘science’ and ‘press release’, the words ‘cold fusion’ immediately pop into my mind It is my impression that press releases, and their subsequent retelling in the popular media, are the only exposure to the world of science that most people have. What they really aren’t told and they just don’t understand is how tentative the results in these reports should be treated. What happens is that people become very cynical about the process of science. The comments that I hear from my family, friends and colleagues (all well educated by not scientists) is things like: – ‘everything in the world causes cancer in white mice’, and ‘the cure for any disease is always 5 to 10 years in the future’ and ‘next week they’ll announce that just the opposite is true’. I’m throwing out the conjecture that the problems that Science faces today, vis-a-vis the general public, is the result of being overexposed to this type of direct feed of initial results. I think that the general public feels about the process of science the same way that the old joke talks about making laws and sausages – they really don’t want to be exposed to the initial stages.

  15. Alice

    Nice piece. I think you are completely right that Futurity may “allow universities and research institutions to go straight to the reader”, but that this sort of (PR) info is only a starting point. It needs analysis, further research, critique and discussion (all of which a decent journalist will provide).

    News isn’t simply a matter of distributing knowledge, it’s way more analytical. Even science news (I’d say *especially* science news). What kind of early 20th century model of news media are they using?

    Moreover, in this world of ‘YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook’ the Futurity puff describe, there is a greater capacity for people who aren’t professional journalists do do this sort of analytical work too. For me, the claims of Futurity can only really convince if they set themselves up in a way whcih fully embraces transparency and encourages citizen journalism. They have a comments function, but not an especially sophisticated one, and links to the major brands of web 2.0, but not, significantly I felt, to Wikipedia or even a trail to other places these topics had been picked up and discussed.

    Frankly, they need to do a bit better, else the project simply becomes an exercise in institutionalising churnalism.

  16. The major problem I see is that the editor is no substittue for peer review and the postings, which really are press relases and marketing tools, can be picked up and amplified through the blogosphere again with no peer review. If amplified suffieicnetly journalists are left having to straighten the mess out; sometimes.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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