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Release of Information to the Public and Journal/Author Relations With the News Media 

Release of Information to the Public and Journal/Author Relations With the News Media
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Subscriber: null; date: 11 December 2017

Release of Information to the Public and Journal/Author Relations With the News Media

  • Most people understand science and technology less
  • through direct experience than through the filter of
  • journalism…. Journalists are, in effect, brokers,
  • framing social reality and shaping the public
  • consciousness about science.
  •     Dorothy Nelkin1

Public interest in matters of health and in news about medicine and health is substantial. A telephone survey of 1250 US adults concluded that the majority of citizens consider news coverage of science to be as important as coverage of crime, the economy, politics, sports, and entertainment.2 Many factors affect science journalism and the communication of scientific information to the public, including poor science literacy among the public; the increase in costs for print publication and distribution; a concomitant decline in print newspaper circulation and the decline of newspaper sections dedicated to health and science; a dearth of investigative journalists trained as scientists and more coverage of science news by reporters who do not understand science; the rise of online news systems and on-demand news delivered to niche markets; news and topic-specific email lists and blogs; tabloid journalism; sponsored infotainment, infomercials, and websites masquerading as credible and objective providers of science and health information; and the increasingly competitive nature of the businesses of news delivery and scientific journals.3-9

The responsible dissemination of the results of new scientific research and information to the public is critical. Unfortunately, amid the burgeoning means of conveying such information, accuracy and reliability in science news coverage in the news media are not increasing proportionately. To gain a competitive edge in the information chain, news organizations may exchange complexity, analysis, background, and perspective for immediacy and sensationalism.10 Thus, the need for journal editors to develop and maintain viable and ethical relationships with news journalists—for all types of media—has become even more important.

Scientific journal editors have several responsibilities regarding communicating scientific information to the public and their relationship with the news media:

  • Publish appropriate, accurate, reliable, timely, and accountable scientific information.

  • Inform authors and journalists about journal policies regarding release of information in manuscripts under consideration or accepted prior to publication and journal embargoes prohibiting news media coverage of articles before publication (see 5.13.1, Release of Information to the Public).

  • Assist the news media to prepare accurate stories of the information about to be published by providing news releases, answering questions, facilitating equal advanced access to the journal articles in a controlled and consistent manner, and providing access to authors or other experts as needed (see 5.13.1, Release of Information to the Public).

  • Evaluate the quality of news coverage of information published in the journal. For example, if a news organization has published an inaccurate report of a particular journal article, the journal editor should consider notifying the journalist and/or news editor to identify the errors in the report.11

Studies have documented that reporting of science, biomedicine, and health in the lay media is often inaccurate, incomplete, or without adequate context.12-18 Journal editors and news journalists share a common obligation—to ensure that the public receives accurate information and is not misled.11,12,19 This obligation becomes particularly important when information about risk is communicated to the public. For example, failure to describe health risks accurately and in proper perspective may be misleading, can create unnecessary concern, and may result in loss of public trust in reporters, editors, and scientists. Tensions between journalists, editors, and scientists—often driven by self-interests—can do much to confuse the public. These tensions should be recognized and mitigated,19 and journals should seek an appropriate balance between their duties to the community of readers they serve, the integrity of the scientific literature, and public entitlement to access to important scientific information without unreasonable delay.20

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