Steven Woloshin et al., "Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic?", Annals of Internal Medicine, 150(9): 613-618:
Background: The news media are often criticized for exaggerated coverage of weak science. Press releases, a source of information for many journalists, might be a source of those exaggerations.
Conclusion: Press releases from academic medical centers often promote research that has uncertain relevance to human health and do not provide key facts or acknowledge important limitations.
There's no indication that any of the 200 press releases in their sample was as bad as the infamous "Nobler Instincts Take Time" document from USC that set off a flurry of headlines like "Twitter makes users immoral, research claims". (For details, see "Debasing the coinage of rational inquiry: a case study", 4/22/2009.) And even further out on the long tail of hooey are the virtuoso flacks who create scientific-seeming news out of little or no research at all.
But Woloshin et al. do conclude that investigators should "review releases before dissemination, taking care to temper their tone (particularly their own quotes, which we often found overly enthusiastic)". This is certainly good advice, though it's not much more likely to be followed than any other good advice that runs counter to its recipients' interests.
Ben Goldacre ("Dodgy academic PR", The Guardian, 5/30/2009) focuses on the role of the economic dynamics of the news business:
Obviously we distrust the media on science: they rewrite commercial press releases from dodgy organisations as if they were health news, they lionise mavericks with poor evidence, and worse. But journalists will often say: what about those scientists with their press releases? Surely we should do something about them, running about, confusing us with their wild ideas?
Now you may be inclined to think that a journalist should be capable of doing more than simply reading, and then rewriting, a press release: but we must accept that these are troubled times. Through our purchasing behaviour – and I assume someone cleverer than me measures these things competently – we have communicated to newspapers that we want them to be large and cheap, more than we want them to be adequately researched.
So in this imperfect world, it would be useful to know what’s in academic press releases, since these are the people of whom we are entitled to have the highest expectations. A paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine this month shows very clearly that we have been failed.
Was coverage of science significantly better in less journalistically troubled times, when newspapers were highly profitable? I'm not sure — I suspect that in mass media in general, sensation and entertainment have always been better business than sober and balanced presentation of research results. And in the same way, the forces governing academic PR don't reward researchers for "tempering their tone".
The best thing, it seems to me, would be to enrich the journalistic ecosystem with more species in niches like the one that Goldacre's Bad Science column occupies — agile, razor-clawed predators culling the herds of science-news herbivores that graze the green shoots of press releases on the endless media plains.