The press-release is a much-reviled instrument in some quarters, and criticisms of the longstanding public relations tool are evergreen. But — at least when it comes to medical studies — press releases are hugely important, and there is solid reason to believe that the death of the press release would make journalism far worse.
The evidence comes from a study out of Dartmouth, published last month in the British Medical Journal. The researchers looked at 100 studies published in five top journals: BMJ, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, the Annals of Internal Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine. Then they picked out 343 news stories written about those studies and looked at the quality of the journalism, along with the quality of the associated press releases.
Here’s what the researchers found: on average, a good press release boosted the quality of a story. Take mentions of harms of a particular intervention. If the press release mentioned harms, 68 percent of the stories mentioned harms. No press release, and that number falls nearly in half, to 36 percent. Or the funding source (one of HealthNewsReview.org‘s 10 criteria for a good news story): if those details are in the release, 42 percent of stories mention it. When there is no release, that falls to 20 percent.
That’s not to say that press releases are uniformly a force for good. Lousy press releases make for lousy journalism, too. When press release that fails to mention harms, three out of every four stories also omitted that crucial information. And 93 percent of stories fail to mention funding when the press release leaves that out information, even though the information is in every journal article. A bad release led to stories that were worse than medical studies with no release at all on 12 of the 13 quality measures assessed.
There are a number of caveats here: the BMJ study looked only at press releases pushed out by the journals themselves (which tend to be high-quality documents). And the research looked only at newspaper stories, leaving open the question of whether press releases have the same level of impact on, say, television broadcasts or discussion on social media. And the study — it’s worth repeating — looked only at studies in high-profile medical journals; it focused talking about pretty dense stuff. Criticisms of press releases filled with buzzwords and little else from other industries may be spot on.
But it’s a reminder for those of us in health communications that releases do get read, and releases do make a difference. When we push out information that’s incomplete, there is a trickle-down effect resulting in in lower quality coverage. And that helps no one.
(A list of the quality metrics from the BMJ paper is available here.)