- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- About This Handbook
How to Read a Press Release
By Apoorva Mandavilli / 2 minute read
Science by press release is anathema to most scientists — and to many science journalists, too.
Ed Yong, a staff writer at The Atlantic, gives pretty good advice: “Delete them. Ninety-five percent of the time they’ll make your stories worse.”
Press releases that are unaccompanied by journal publications rarely offer any data and, by definition, offer a biased view of the findings’ value.
“Always remember that a press release represents only the company’s version of events, and it’s our job as journalists to make sure we have the whole story,” says Caroline Chen, a reporter at ProPublica.
She cites an example from her reporting on the Ebola outbreak in 2014: a small medical-device company issued a press release saying that a major hospital had received its device for use with Ebola patients. The announcement sent the company’s stock soaring. Upon further investigation, however, Chen learned that the company had sent its devices to the hospital, but that the hospital had neither asked for them nor was planning to use them.
Press releases can cherry pick the data. For example, drugmakers may report numbers from only a subset of participants to make their results look better than they are. Some participants may have quit the trial because of a bad side effect; excluding them would not capture the whole picture of the drug’s risks.
For a class she teaches, Chen has used the example of a 2019 press release touting vitamin D pills to lower the risk of heart attacks, stroke and cancer, even though the paper that the press release was promoting had found no such effect. Kaiser Health News and The New York Times reported the results accurately, but Reuters parroted the press release’s stance.
Reporters should also make sure that the claims in the press release are supported by the study design, says the freelance writer Emily Anthes. “If a press release says that the study proves that, say, eating chocolate for breakfast ‘causes’ heart attacks, but the study just looks for correlations between food diaries and medical records, that’s a problem.”
Occasionally press releases can be useful. For example, the issuing of releases from the institutions of all of the authors can be a sign that the paper is likely to be big news and widely covered. A variety of press releases on a particular topic can also flag an emerging trend.