This article from highlights the problem of errors in the way the media reports scientific discoveries. Reporters are often a part of the problem, but a report from Cardiff University claims that official university press releases, approved by the scientists and their departments are most often the source of errors and exaggerations. Everyone loves to blame the media, but put down your pitchfork, in this case the media may not be to blame. The article reports:
“But a recent study [from the British Medical Journal] suggests that journalists aren’t the weakest link. The source of misrepresentations and exaggerations in science news stories is often much closer to the scientists themselves: press releases put out by researchers’ own institutions. Surveying hundreds of news stories and press releases about medical research, a group of scientists at Cardiff University found that most exaggerations and misrepresentations of science in print news “did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text of the press releases produced by academics and their establishments.” (emphasis mine)
There are likely a number of contributing factors. But the authors suggest that one source of the problem may be linked to inflated egos wearing lab coats. Scientists speak and write differently when talking to their educated peers than when they are speaking to the public. They know that their peers will call them out when they overstate their research. So official reports in scientific journals are subdued and highly qualified. On the other hand, they are much more likely to exaggerate their claims when speaking to the uninformed public.
This doesn’t surprise me. I have long felt that the scientific community loves to be seen as the guardians of knowledge and progress. This is another good reason to be suspect of sensational scientific research, especially when reported in the mainstream media. These claims are never made apart from the temptations and motivations that corrupt politicians and marketers.