The ‘news’ – four months late

I was just catching up on Nature’s blog coverage of the ‘mobile phones prevent Alzheimer’s disease‘ story, when this paragraph leapt out at me:

In the study – which was originally released in September last year but has only just been press released – researchers exposed mice genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s and un-modified mice to the electromagnetic field generated by standard cell phone usage for two one-hour periods a day.

Yep, the study was published four months ago, but only made the headlines this week because of a press release.

Now, this isn’t new. I come across this all the time in my day job — we’re often sent press releases from universities or research institutes about papers that were published up to six months before. But you might wonder why this happens.

You might expect that real ‘news’ is defined by the timeliness of the story — news is about things that have just recently taken place. By that criteria, this story should have come out in September when the paper was published. But with thousands of academic papers published each day, you can’t expect journalists to make a story of every one of them.

You might have expected the university/institute’s press department to have timed their press release to coincide with the publication. But that could have been (or, in fact, is more likely to be) the researcher’s fault as much as the press officer’s. With hundreds of researchers to keep track of press officers rely on their researchers to tell them when a potentially interesting paper is about to be published – and they often don’t. Our own media office often gets calls from researchers telling them about a paper that has ‘just been published’, not realising that the real window for news is the day the paper is made public, and that lots of preparation needs to be made to attract attention to a story for that time. Then there’s the journals, which can sometimes alter their publication dates at the last minute, not to mention that researchers themselves sometimes don’t realise what might make a newsworthy story or not….

So, sometimes a paper slips through the cracks and isn’t picked up by anyone. But later some canny press officer gets wind of it and writes a press release. That in itself makes it news, as many journalists often take a press release as a sign that the study has ‘just been published’ and rarely check if that is the case. Then again, it doesn’t really matter — if no-one had heard of the story before, technically it’s still news. After all, news is defined by whether the information is ‘new’ and interesting to you, not just by when the event occurred.

Nevertheless, every time I see a news story on a study published months before, I get a little shudder.

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