How spin becomes gospel

How and why do so many health myths transform into everyday wisdom? Perhaps because academic press releases are exaggerated or misrepresented when they're written up in news stories.

The goal of a press release around a scientific study is to draw attention from the media, and that attention is supposed to be good for the university, and for the scientists who did the work. Ideally the endpoint of that press release would be the simple spread of seeds of knowledge and wisdom; but it's about attention and prestige and, thereby, money. Major universities employ publicists who work full time to make scientific studies sound engaging and amazing. Those publicists email the press releases to people like me, asking me to cover the story because "my readers" will "love it." And I want to write about health research and help people experience "love" for things. I do!  

Across 668 news stories about health science, the Cardiff researchers compared the original academic papers to their news reports. They counted exaggeration and distortion as any instance of implying causation when there was only correlation, implying meaning to humans when the study was only in animals, or giving direct advice about health behavior that was not present in the study. They found evidence of exaggeration in 58 to 86 percent of stories when the press release contained similar exaggeration. When the press release was staid and made no such errors, the rates of exaggeration in the news stories dropped to between 10 and 18 percent.

Even the degree of exaggeration between press releases and news stories was broadly similar.

One golden rule: never believe a press release.

Of course, since most research papers I encounter online are behind a paywall, it's difficult to compare them to the news stories representing them. Why are so many research papers paywalled? I can't imagine the revenue to be more than a trifle so why not just let more eyeballs at it to amplify one's fame instead? Perhaps someone with more knowledge of that world can explain the economics.

The Players Tribune

Derek Jeter's new website The Players Tribune launched, and its senior editor Russell Wilson, the Seahawks star QB, penned the site's first piece.

On one level, the idea of athletes going direct to the public in their own words makes a lot of sense. Sports reporters have long made little of their access to players in the locker room and in press conferences, asking the same uninspired questions and recording the same rote answers.

Reporters used to have a tacit understanding with their rich and famous subjects: personal lives and indiscretions were off limits. We make much of the recent domestic violence cases in the NFL, and rightly so. However, it's easy to forget that sports idols of years past were also guilty of such sins, but the press kept mum. Joe Dimaggio beat Marilyn Monroe, but he was pitching Mr. Coffee late in his career.

At some point, that changed, not just in sports, but in politics. Would John F. Kennedy get away with all his affairs in this day and age? Ask Gary Hart. I'm not a press historian, but everything seemed to change with Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein became the new heroes of journalism, and suddenly everything was fair game. The more sordid the better.

Once the relationship between the press and the people they covered transformed into a sort of tacitly adversarial game, access for journalists no longer meant as much. Suddenly everyone was on guard around reporters.

This applies to business world as well. At most tech companies I've worked at, the default PR policy is “no comment” and not just because they don't want to reveal future product plans to the competition. The risk reward ratio of going on the record, especially for established companies, doesn't favor honesty. You might get some widespread awareness from opening the kimono, but as an established company like an Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google, there's never any shortage of ink anyhow.

As a startup trying to get your name out there, the equation is different, of course. That's one case where the adage “any PR is good PR” held because awareness is at such a premium, especially now.

But in general, working with the press, which I've had to do a few times, isn't as fun as it could be. As someone who respects and likes many reporters, I've often wanted to be more forthcoming, but as the voice of every company I've worked at it's not possible. Most fun conversations with reporters are about other companies and occur at social events over drinks. On the record I've always been a bore.

On the other side of the table, most journalists now rightly regard most story pitches from tech companies as marketing pitches. Reporters are looking for some unique angle or insight on every story, and the companies generally know that the positive story they want to pitch doesn't make for the type of narrative that makes good copy. You never know what spin the reporter is going to put on your pitch. If you're lucky, they accept and parrot your pitch while making it sound like an honest opinion, but as a consumer of much tech journalism those stories are of little to no interest.

Many companies now take The Players Tribune approach and just put big announcements out on their own company blog first (or a press release, but the blog gives the story a URL which is critical). Since that is the first take on the story and gets the most social media linking, companies maximize their chance to come out of the gates owning the top headline in the Techmeme story cluster for that event. In essence, the company can speak directly to the public and frame the story in their own words while reporters scramble to digest the blog post and come up with their own spin. Any negative spin inevitably lags.

All of which leads back to The Players Tribune. In this new age, celebrities already have the ability to talk to the public unmediated through Twitter, Instagram, and the internet in general. Lebron can demand that ESPN host The Decision or that Sports Illustrated publish his announcement of his return to Cleveland verbatim.

In this world, will The Players Tribune actually carry revealing content? Possibly, but I'm skeptical. For famous athletes, endorsement money makes up a large percentage of their net income, and being revealing and honest about their lives isn't that appealing to advertisers. Coke or Nike or McDonalds isn't looking for colorful stories from their roster of athletes. For that reason, I'm suspicious of how compelling The Players Tribune will be.

Of course, not all athletes pursue the same publicity strategy. Dennis Rodman is one example of someone whose public awareness exploded when he ran to the fringe. But for the most part, society is much more tolerant of hearing wild and crazy stories about musicians than athletes. We almost expect artistic genius to come with a certain amount of sex, drugs, and moral entropy, but our preferred narrative of our star athletes is that they are in the gym busting their butts because of their deep desire to win. My favorite sports tell-alls, the most revealing autobiographies, tend to come from fringe players, not from stars. Jim Bouton comes to mind.

I hope I'm wrong. If The Players Tribune signs Charles Barkley up for a personal blog, I'll come running.