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HT02: What did the researchers actually say?

by on 2014/06/03

Part 2: What did the researchers actually say?

In the first part of our How to “Research the Headlines” guide, we suggested delving beneath the headline to get a fuller picture of the research being reported. Assuming you’re now in the meat of the story, what are some of the things you should you look for? One simple thing is whether or not the people who conducted the research are quoted in the report. Were they given an opportunity to put the research findings into their own words?

Quotes from the research team can be helpful as they allow the findings to be expressed in a more accessible way, or in terms that the team might not use in the actual published research. That’s certainly not to say they will dumb their findings down, but simply express them in a manner that non-experts will understand. The original research will often be published in a specialist journal using methods, analysis and terminology that those in the field will be familiar with, but which may even have different meanings to non-experts. If the findings are particularly complex, a quote from the research team can often be a good way of ensuring they are correctly expressed.

Sometimes quoting a researcher allows them to place their study in context too. They might suggest why the new findings should be of interest to the public in general, or they might use the quote to ensure the findings are treated cautiously until more studies are able to provide support for them. If the research is in a particularly controversial area, a quote from the research team can be a useful way of allowing them to express what the data suggested, before any further interpretation or counterargument.

In many cases, the quotes might not come from the journalist directly speaking to the researchers, but rather from a press release prepared by the team or institution where the research was conducted. Using press release quotes is of course perfectly acceptable, especially given the very tight deadlines that journalists often have to work to (though if you look at a number or reports of the same research it can become a little repetitive). The Science Media Centre advises journalists not to rely too heavily on quotes in press releases, and for good reason: press releases aren’t vetted by anyone in the same way that the published research has been. While they are usually very informative, they can slightly overemphasise certain aspects of the findings. Without access to the published research, it can be difficult to ascertain when this might have happened. That’s why a good report will also often include quotes from an expert who is completely independent of the research team. In fact, that’s something we’ll be discussing in the next How to “Research the Headlines” post.

So, quoting from press releases is common practice and generally ok when used sparingly, but speaking to the researchers directly would usually be preferred. Given pressures of time from both sides, it isn’t always possible for every journalist to speak to the team, and indeed, some researchers are wary of speaking directly to the media for fear of being misquoted (accidentally or intentionally). For example, one of our recent posts looked at the case of a scientist misquoted. Again, without access to the published research, or contact with the researchers themselves, verifying the accuracy of any quote isn’t possible. At Research the Headlines, we would therefore encourage researchers to engage as clearly as they can with journalists, and likewise, that those reporting research in the media ensure their reporting is accurate and informative.

This How to “Research the Headlines” was brought to you by Alan Gow. The next two parts of the guide will consider what other people could or should be quoted in a good piece of reporting, and how we know who actually did the study. Access all of the How to “Research the Headlines” guides here.

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