May 20 was the 20th anniversary of the launch of EurekAlert, the science news distribution service operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This service was founded back in 1996, in the digital dark ages, and since then EurekAlert has been aggregating content and making it available to science writers and journalists all over the world. Close to 12,000 are currently registered.
In case you are not familiar with EurekAlert, it is free for reporters to join, and they can access embargoed and breaking news, peer-reviewed journal articles, and expert databases through a password-protected portal.
All the content in the portal is fed into the system by universities, journals, and government agencies worldwide. These institutions pay a fee to have their content promoted mainly via press releases to the database of registered science journalists. The general public also has access to parts of the portal, although the embargoed press releases and the expert database are—rightly—out of bounds.
Before EurekAlert, these groups relied on their own databases of contacts—lists of journalists that had been curated over time and organized by area of expertise—for the promotion of their content through letters, faxes, and the old-fashioned phone call. Science news traveled slowly in those days.
From the point of view of the journalists, getting scientific content from sources was an arduous process before this service existed. Those who were well-resourced and had internet access were often limited to a small number of terminals to be shared among several teams, which meant having to queue to access the system. The less well-resourced had to rely on being on one of the approved lists or on taking a trip to the local library to physically trawl through the scientific literature—journal after journal after journal—to find news worth reporting.
EurekAlert has achieved a number of things for journalists. First, it provides a nearly one-stop shop for scientific content (some journals, such as those in the Nature family, run their own embargo services), reducing considerably the number of sources that journalists need to keep up with and speeding up the process of delivering news to our audiences. Second, similar to the music industry and iTunes, it democratizes the reporting and distribution of science so all news organizations—big and small—have access to the same content at the same time with embargoes applied universally. And finally, the service spells out the significance of the research it promotes, in a way acting as a translator of science so its message can be grasped by a nonspecialized audience.
On the negative side, many would argue that the press release system is contrived and that the media is being spoon-fed science, making reporting news outside a predetermined agenda a thing of the past. There is a related video from “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” on scientific studies that has been making the rounds on social media. The video touches on many issues relating to science communication, and Oliver spends some time talking about the dangers of what I refer to above as “translating science.”
He argues that scientists are constantly producing new studies that are taken out of context by the media—morning TV shows are some of the worst offenders—and “translated” into stories proclaiming that “drinking a glass of red wine is just as good as spending an hour at the gym” and “driving while dehydrated is just as dangerous as driving drunk.” In Oliver’s own words: “Often a small study with nuanced, tentative findings gets blown out of all proportion when it is presented to us, the lay public.” EurekAlert gives journalists great power. Let’s use it wisely.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.