07/07/2016  |  Posted By:

PR professionals, as influential bridges between scientists and media, must also be active partners in improving the quality of health coverage. Our health communications work at JPA occasionally puts us in touch with frustrated scientists asking why some media coverage of research results oversimplifies or exaggerates implications – risking misunderstandings and false hopes.

For example, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently found that treatment of chronic nerve pain in rats using morphine, an opioid, worsened the duration and intensity of the pain.

Some thorough reports on the study, like this one from Science Magazine, gave methodological background, noted similar past findings, mentioned related studies in progress and cautioned against applying the results directly to humans – but many other articles did not include such caveats. Culturally, socially and politically sensitive health issues like opioid use deserve equally sensitive messaging and careful reporting, including, if necessary, challenges to researchers’ own implications.

Good science coverage requires training, experience and time; many, including the Columbia Journalism Review, have shared the challenges. The 24-hour news cycle is hungry for headlines that drive social media sharing and this constant demand for new, dramatic research is dissonant with the slow, steady pace of science. This tension was well-captured by a STAT News piece on perceptions that Verily (the former Google Life Sciences) is not delivering innovation as quickly as some had hoped.

Many journalists, PRs and scientists are working together for excellence in health and science communications through groups such as the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Last month, I was proud to be an invited delegate at a University of Michigan conference on how to improve health and science communications. With my fellow delegates, I look forward to identifying more ways PR professionals can support media and the research community.