School of Psychology News & events

Research Summary

Sumner, P, Chambers, C, Boivin, J, Bott, L, Williams, A, Kitzinger, J (2014 - 2016) Improving public health through bringing the randomised controlled trial aproach to the interaction of academia and the media. ESRC. £247,164.

Public perception and understanding of science is crucial to society's ability to respond today's challenges, such as climate change, aging, and the rising cost of health care. It is therefore crucial to optimise the communication of new science so it is both accurate and engaging, and to avoid misleading readers or creating scares that harm public health (such as the MMR vaccine scare). The national press represents the greatest opportunity for promoting better understanding of health concerns and the science behind treatments and lifestyle improvements.

Since the majority of science news is communicated to journalists via press releases from academic journals and universities, we will focus on how to optimise this critical link in the chain. Our project aims to identify features of press releases that cause inaccurate press coverage and/or influence press uptake. For example, we hypothesise that some words used by scientists are routinely interpreted with stronger meanings by journalists and lay readers (such as 'predict' meaning 'statistically correlate with' for scientists, but 'causes' for lay readers). We will conduct experiments on these features, to gather empirical evidence on whether and how such features do cause misinterpretation. At the same time, we will conduct surveys of scientists, press officers and journalists to gather information about how they interact and what difficulties they experience. From this, we will produce evidence-based guidelines for optimising press releases.