Journalism and Clinical Research: Overcoming the Disconnect Between Science and Media

April Schultz
Content Marketing Manager, Forte
December 6th, 2016

When scrolling through your newsfeed, it’s not uncommon to find article headlines touting “breakthroughs” in research findings. For journalists and researchers alike, the term is all too tempting. Even though the FDA definition of a “breakthrough” is rigid, it’s often misinterpreted and used incorrectly. Inflated media coverage of study results are unfortunately common in the drug development industry. This kind of attention, while positive in some cases, emphasizes the consistent struggle between the realities of clinical research and media’s interpretation.

This is a significant concern for both sponsored and institutional clinical research, as media attention, both positive and negative, can influence accrual rates for future studies as well as product acceptance once a drug goes to market. With many articles citing on-the-job researchers rather than the sponsor or institutional administrators, potential for misrepresentation and unfeasible promises increases.

The Disconnect

Ultimately, the divide between journalists and researchers comes down to two key factors: conflicting motivations and a lack of necessary education.

Conflicting Motivations

Journalists are on a quest for a newsworthy story. In that respect, they are looking to find studies that could have major implications for public health. Journalists also seek to get information right from the source. When they discover a lead for an interesting study, they often jump on the chance to talk directly with those involved, most likely principal investigators and the sites conducting the research. During interviews, journalists want quotes from researchers they believe will enhance the story and making it more interesting and relevant to their readers.

Clinical researchers, on the other hand, want to justify why their work is important to increase the potential for future grant funding and disseminate the information to other scientists, the research community and the public. Particularly in academia, the pressures to “publish or perish” may influence a researcher’s response to hopeful journalists. In order to publish their research, study results are expected to be noteworthy. These industry expectations, as well as a researcher’s excitement to showcase their work, can lead to overzealous and possibly bias interviews. These interviews are where the “breakthrough” language is born, thus driving undue or misguided attention to a study.

Lack of Education

There seems to be a lack of training on both sides that impacts each party’s ability to communicate with the other. Some journalists in the life sciences industry write extensive articles on clinical research studies with only a high-level knowledge of the actual drug development process. Whereas clinical researchers may struggle to conduct an appropriate interview because they often lack proper training in public speaking and media relations.

The Solution

Public relations (PR) representatives are often key to helping sponsors and institutions manage media attention and present a study in the desired context. Individuals with public relations experience can work to prepare staff for interviews, police public statements and relay pertinent information to all researchers involved with a study. The PR representative is also an asset during crisis management, as they can easily defuse misinformation or detrimental rumors.

Regardless of whether a PR representative is feasible for your organization, guidelines for all staff members on how to discuss a study with the media is important to maintain consistency and reduce potential for inaccuracy. Providing educational courses for your staff, such as public speaking workshops or interview preparation, could also positively influence their ability to conduct an informed interview.

Changing industry perspectives

However, a more effective solution to this problem might be a change in mindset. As mentioned previously, many academics in the clinical research industry feel a large amount of pressure to publish their work. Yet, publication is difficult to accomplish. In the current landscape, research must be noteworthy to be noticed. This leads researchers to take on studies with the potential to be a “breakthrough” rather than focusing efforts towards less exemplary work, such as replication studies. This research may be less headline-worthy, but is equally important to the success of the drug development process. Replicating study results is essential to determine the true efficacy of a treatment.

Changing the clinical research industry’s perspective on what is considered noteworthy and worthwhile research could decrease the disconnect between the worlds of science and media. Less pressure on researchers to conduct “breakthrough” research could lead to an increase in the number of important replication studies. This, in turn, may encourage more realistic representation of the clinical research industry.

It’s imperative that the industry recognize and actively improve the misguided public perception of clinical research. This can only be achieved through industry collaboration and a shift in the dynamic between journalism and research.

To learn more methods for increased industry efficiency, view our library of resources for clinical research professionals.


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