Getting (very) meta part 2: Press releases

Noah Haber

It’s been four weeks since CLAIMS was published, and we have now gotten a look at some of the discussion about the study. First up: the press releases.

The majority of our co-authors for CLAIMS are/were with either the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health, so it was fitting that we had press-releases from these institutions. In both cases, we initiated contact with the press offices, who then wrote initial draft press releases. We then made suggestions and edits to those releases. The Harvard University press release was published on June 5, with the UNC press release on June 19.

In the CLAIMS study itself, our sample had nine studies whose author list had at least one Harvard University affiliation listed, and only one from UNC. Both of these schools are two of the most respected and highest ranked institutions in the field. It is intuitive that big name private universities are more likely to garner press than less generally-recognizable schools, and that seems to be a factor when someone drops the Big H. So far it is looking like this also holds true for click generation, as we are getting more traffic from the Harvard University press releases (more on that once we have collected more data). Name recognition matters.

As for content in my opinion, they were generally very accurate (we should hope so, since we helped edit them). The HSPH press release focused a touch more on media misinterpretation than might be ideal through the use of a side quote, given that we can’t do much to distinguish between the impact of academia, media, and social media spin and preference. The UNC one was a bit more neutral in that regard. We should note that it is incredibly difficult to craft these statements, and it is near impossible to write something like this with perfect emphasis on all the subtleties of the study.

One interesting difference between the two was how each institution emphasized its own institutional role in the study. As an example, I was a doctoral student at HSPH when we did the main part of the research, but a postdoc at UNC when the article was published, so I have both affiliations for the publication. I was the same person in each press release, but my descriptors were notably different:

From Harvard University:

“Noah Haber, who recently completed his Sc.D. in health economics in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. . .”

From UNC:

“. . . Noah Haber, ScD, postdoctoral scholar at UNC’s Carolina Population Center. . .”

During this process, we learned first-hand just how incredibly difficult it is to write science for a general audience. In the case of our public explainer, we had the luxury of space; if a concept was best described in two paragraphs, we could use it. On a press-release, writers have two paragraphs for their audience to absorb ideas it typically took years of intense study and investigation to work with. On top of that, the most important purpose of a press release is to generate press (and therefore funding). Spin, whether intended or not, is tempting, and easy miss when it happens.

Did we do a good job editing these press releases? Did we, ironically, overstate the strength of our own findings? Did we mislead, whether intentionally or not? We would like to believe that we did our best to be accurate and honest, but we are rarely the best judges of ourselves.

Thoughts and comments welcome