As STEM communicators our jobs revolve around turning complex ideas, results or theories into information that people can make sense of and use. But in a post-truth era, where scientists are viewed with suspicion not just by the general public but by the media that report on their activities, it can be a struggle to ensure fair reporting of scientific information.
This was fantastically highlighted by an article on FiveThirtyEight, a blog run by statistical wizard Nate Silver who established it to provide some level of sense as to how the media and the public interpret data. FiveThirtyEight began by looking at US election and baseball data, but has branched out into a huge range of topics, including the weather.
Hurricane Irma, the article contests, was widely misreported, even by press that is assumed not to have an agenda. It specifically cites an AP tweet that woefully misunderstands forecasting and probability, giving potentially dangerous information to residents in Florida:
Even Trump joined in, saying that the devastation Irma left was greater than anyone thought. When one looks at the forecasting, this is nonsense. What happened was that when events did not exactly match the expectations of the media, the forecasting was blamed, as opposed to the inaccurate narratives created.
For those of us in PR, it presents a conundrum. We read the media every day, so can understand how, even before we pitch to a journalist, media expectation will cause a story to be skewed. Working on anything agricultural? The tabloids will work in a GM angle. Have a cancer research story? The word ‘cure’ will be used. Releasing new data on climate change? Good luck.
Indeed, this knowledge greatly influences who we give stories to in the first place. This year alone, I have honestly considered not giving certain stories to some national publications because of the risk of misinterpretation and subsequent back-and-forth with a journalist, something which does not cover anyone – them, me or my client – in glory.
Yet would such ‘blacklisting’ be going too far? PR Week asked the industry what its opinion of the #StopFundingHate campaign was, which last week got fashion brand Joy to stop its advertising from appearing on the MailOnline and Express.co.uk websites. In another scoop, it got Evans to blacklist them this week, with the Sun.co.uk thrown in for good measure. Some said that if it fits with a brand’s values then blacklisting is OK, but without the PR publicity so it is not seen as self-congratulatory. But others worried about the potential impact it could have on media integrity, with brands dictating which media survive and which die in a world that exists thanks to ad spend. Is it worth sacrificing media plurality just so brands can feel holier than thou?
From the PR perspective, one could argue that a STEM story should be pitched to media that would typically get it wrong. Its readers (and potentially journalists too) need to be engaged so that they become more literate in the subject, ensuring rounded coverage and a more informed viewpoint. But how likely is this outcome? Misrepresentation of a report can be far more damaging than simply a lack of its awareness.
I have discussed this with colleagues and fellow professionals and have yet to land on a decent course of action that can be followed for all situations. Every story should be assessed on its own merit, with each risk and benefit weighed up against your overall objective and a course of action plotted accordingly.
But the idealist in me isn’t satisfied with that. How is it that we STEM PRs face the misrepresentation of our clients on such a regular basis that we need to factor it into every media decision we make? Should the media not take more responsibility for what it publishes? Or does a free press trample all before it?
Anyone with the answer to this, please get in touch.
If you want to chat about this, give me a message on firstname.lastname@example.org