There is a crisis in journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review just said so, as I pointed out last week, suggesting that — at its base — there are too few journalists chasing too many stories with too much fluff. A week ago, I argued that CJR’s Dean Starkman was wrong to blame public relations for that.
If it’s not the fault of PR, who is to blame? In health and medicine, the culprit is clear: information overload.
A study released earlier this month by PLoS Medicine (and flagged for me by colleague Scott Shadiow) made clear exactly how much information we’re talking: 75 clinical trials are published each day, along with 11 systemic reviews, all available with just a few mouse clicks. And that doesn’t count other kinds of trials, preclinical work, presentations, topline release of results or regulatory decisions. Add that to the pile of press releases (the top science press release distribution site, Eurekalert, pushed out links to more than 100 different science press releases yesterday), abstracts and asssorted other bits of health and medical information, and an educated reporter could sift through — conservatively — at least hundred pieces of complex information each day.
The math here is not encouraging. Let’s say a reporter works a 10-hour workday and spends a quarter of his or her day checking those 100 items (leaving some time, of course, to report and write). Even with my generous assumptions, that works out to about 90 seconds per item: not enough time to consume a full press release, let alone a complex study. Of course, no reporter gives each item equal time: a New England Journal of Medicine piece might get a more thoughtful review; uninvited, e-mailed press releases might get deleted without so much as a glance at the subject line.
There are a handful of ways that reporters are getting around this problem. There is more journalistic specialization (something that is happening as trade publications undergo a renaissance and expert blogs come online) and, relatedly, a renewed emphasis on the process of science, rather than just the results. And then there is just brute intellectual force: Ivan Oransky at Reuters Health says he reads 110 studies a week, abstract to conclusion.
But there is a role here, too, for media relations. If the problem is information overload, our job is clear: to help reporters sift through and connect with resources, not throw one more piece of spam at them. It’s to recognize that specialization is the reality, tailoring our pitches to reporters who are closely tracking a given area. Overload isn’t an issue that’s going away; we’ve jumped from 14 trials a day to 75, with the graph continuing to trend upward.
The question for journalists (and PR), then, isn’t boosting awareness of what they don’t know. It’s managing, contextualizing and prioritizing the gobs and gobs of stuff they do know.