Making headlines with plain language summaries: the media perspective

Luke Bratton

Plain language summaries (PLS) have the potential to change science communication. Open access, easy-to-read summaries of research are likely to be an attractive source for journalists looking for their next story. Press releases have been the go-to source for concise summaries of research for decades, but the uneasy relationship between press release content and news headlines provides some important lessons for writers of PLS.

In 2011, riots were spreading across the UK. One news headline read “Rioters have lower levels of brain chemical that keeps impulsive behaviour under control.” Another, now retracted, article announced a “nose spray to stop drunks and brawls”. What was the research finding behind these attention-grabbing headlines? Levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in a certain area of the brain were correlated with individual differences in a personality trait related to the tendency to act rashly. So, in other words, the research did not justify the claims printed in the news.

One of the authors of this misconstrued research and colleagues at Cardiff University decided to figure out what went wrong in this miscommunication. They believed that somewhere between the publication of the research paper and the headlines, the original message was warped, like in a game of telephone/Chinese whispers. Their study showed that when exaggeration of a published scientific finding appeared in the news, the associated press release was likely to already contain the same exaggeration. The press releases were published by the institution at which the research originated, meaning that an appreciable portion of the misinformation that appeared in the news originated close to the source, often with the approval of the researchers.

Given the dramatic shift to online news and the need to attract clicks to drive paid subscriptions or advertising revenue, there is a requirement for more copy in less time. If you were a journalist asked to write a story covering a recently published genetic study by lunchtime, would you be likely to read through the 4000-word research paper (if you could even get access to it)? Press releases are a far more attractive alternative. They are easily digestible summaries, written in plain language, emailed directly from the source. However, in a rush towards the deadline, and without the time or the specialist knowledge needed for fact checking, it should be no surprise that journalists can often reprint content present in the press release, including any inaccuracies.

In 2019, a randomized controlled trial, using the accuracy of news content as the outcome and real-world-modified press releases as the intervention, showed that news headlines were more likely to be accurately aligned to the findings of the original research when press releases were also aligned. Any summary of research available to a journalist needs to be as accurate as possible in order to give them every opportunity to avoid printing misinformation.

With the developing consensus of the need for standardized PLS, there is potential for the PLS to emerge as a go-to source for journalists seeking summaries of research. It is important for writers and editors of PLS to consider that their content could appear almost verbatim on a news site front page. With this in mind, there are lessons that can be learned from research into the content of press releases and news as well as from the existing guidelines for press officers.

In 2018, the Science Media Centre launched a press release labelling system to help press officers understand how to most accurately and effectively report scientific studies. This advises on how to interpret and report findings, how to make inferences from study designs, and how to correctly identify the study sample. From 2015 to 2018, the project rated hundreds of press releases using a 10-point system to highlight the completeness and accuracy of reporting. Potential writers of PLS could learn valuable lessons from these resources to help avoid misguided headlines.

Luke Bratton is an Associate Medical Writer at Oxford PharmaGenesis.