Medical practice

Researchers: your guide to hitting the headlines

Boffins, are you having trouble communicating the fruits of your labour to a wider audience?

Have you spent five thankless years going through stool samples in an attempt to find new treatments for giardiasis only to have your work written up as a single paragraph on page 34 of the Rochdale Observer?

Well, worry no more. Drawing on decades of journalistic experience, the Behind the Headlines team has drawn up the definitive guide to getting your work featured prominently on News at Ten. Simply follow the 10 tips below and before you know it you’ll be talking p-values with Phil and Holly on ITV's This Morning.

1. The "X causes Y" story

Yes, it's the bread and butter of health journalism. If it wasn’t for the "X causes Y" story everyone in the industry would have to get proper jobs.

Now as we all know, X very rarely causes Y directly. As the 60ft-high neon letters on top of the Behind the Headlines Towers spell out: “It’s a bit more complicated than that”.

It's usually the case that a person with X will end up with Y, but they will also be exposed to A, B, C, D, and indeed J, along the way. But if you are going to start letting facts get in the way of a good story, you are frankly wasting all of our time as a fame-hungry researcher.

Word of advice: forget about cancer. The Daily Mail has exhausted every single "X causes Y" cancer story over the last 30 years and subsequently ruined it for the rest of us. You are going to have to be subtle.

Why not try working backwards? Pick an object and then a disease at random and see if you can find evidence to fit the two. How about "apricots cause social anxiety disorder", "staplers cause ringworm", or even "baseball caps cause stupidity" (that last one may actually be true).

Like a jazz pianist, once you become a bit more confident, you can begin to improvise around the central theme. For instance, “Actually turns out that Y causes X!” or how about “Eggheads thought that X causes Y but it actually causes Z – the idiots!”.

The possibilities are endless.

2. Diet and weight loss

Let’s be frank. There is only one entirely valid evidence-based diet and weight loss story. And this is it: if you want to lose weight then you need to regularly expend more calories than you consume.

But sensible restrained advice never sold newspapers. So you have two choices – pick a fad food or invent a high-concept diet.

The first option is to identify a single food source (or in the ragtrade – "a superfood"). Be it walnuts, wasabi or whelks, you'll need to convince some poor souls to take part in your randomised controlled trial (RCT). Eventually, one of your active intervention groups will lose weight (even if its just a side effect of food poisoning). And you never know, you might get some funding from the seafood industry.

The high-concept diet takes a little more imagination, but it can yield a lot of media coverage – as per the 5:2 diet or the caveman diet.

One option is to recommend an entirely arbitrary set of rules based on a unifying concept. For example, there is "Daniel’s diet", which is based on the presumed eating habits of the prophet Daniel, as reported in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel (sadly we are not making this up).

The second is to choose a region and lifestyle – as per the (actually pretty convincing) Mediterranean diet. Then there's the Cuban diet, which consists of a diet of low-calorie food, lots of cycling, and universal healthcare due to a unique mix of a communist dictatorship, a US oil embargo and financial crisis caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union – Cuba's biggest supporter. Sadly, it's probably not the kind of diet you could stick to if you're getting some winter sun at an all-inclusive Caribbean beach resort.

3. Sex

Sex sells. Even the most abstract aspect of the wide spectrum of human sexual behaviour will increase your chance of media coverage, such as the effects of bondage on mental health or the variable levels of sperm quality during the course of a year.

Even if your study has nothing to do with sex don’t despair: there is always something you can use.

In a textbook example, taught in university press offices across the world, researchers tried – unsuccessfully – to use acupuncture to help relieve hot flushes in women receiving hormonal treatments for breast cancer. However, a smart researcher noticed a small, but (whisper it) "non-statistically significant improvement in self-reported sexual wellbeing levels". So the study was spun with headlines implying, “Acupuncture boosts sex drive”.

If your study does not involve humans, it doesn’t matter. Reporters are more than happy to extrapolate your findings to humans for you – often in ways you could never imagine (or want to).

For example, a 2007 study looked at sexual orientation in rams (one in 12 rams are gay, fact fans), in an attempt to improve breeding rates. This was spun by some into an alleged conspiracy by scientists looking to "cure" homosexuality in humans. Still, the whole fiasco did give the world the immortal headline “Brokeback Mutton”.

4. Modern life is rubbish

News editors are nostalgic by nature. They long for the good old days of warm beer, four-hour lunches, rubberstamped expenses accounts, and a world where newspapers still made a profit. So any evidence that suggests that the modern world has "gone to the dogs" will always be welcome.

But importantly – as a researcher – you'll have to focus on a cutting-edge phenomena. If you publish a paper about how MySpace promotes bullying in teenagers then you might as well research the impact of Ceefax on relationships during the 1980s, grandad.

Maybe you could find evidence of how using a PlayStation 4 gamepad is good for arthritis (if anyone from Sony is reading this, we will probably hype such a study in exchange for a free PS4) or to take a real-life example, how Nintendo's Wii Fit Plus could help people with diabetes.

5. Rheumatologists: know your audience

If your magnum opus is on arthritis, you've got fairly limited options for media coverage. The best you can hope for is to get published in the Daily Express (which has a core audience of over 50s – if you don't believe us check the headlines over the past week). However, if you do find tantalising evidence for a new arthritis treatment you are almost guaranteed an Express front page headline of “Arthritis Wonder Drug”.

And if you can find a link suggesting that the Duchess of Cornwall is suffering from the particular type of arthritis you're researching, you'll probably get a weekly column.

6. The male pill

News editors love male pill stories as it gives them a double-whammy.

First they get to run a male pill story. And second, they get to commission a range of opinion pieces from columnists, which always follow a gender divide:

7. "Won’t somebody think of the children?"

Kiddy stories are ideal for publicity.

Parenting is like advertising, search engine optimisation and cosmology. This is because it's possible to sound like an expert without having the slightest idea what you are talking about (seriously, 96% of the universe’s mass is unaccounted for, so cosmologists have it easy).

And like driving and making love, people get very upset if you suggest that they are not very good at being a parent. Any article based on your parenting research (even if it's research on how octopus mothers like to eat their own children) is grist to the news mill. This is because parenting news stories guarantee hundreds of letters and web comments saying that you are either:

  • an idiot, or
  • you proved what the readers knew all along.

Obviously, don’t suggest anything that could actually cause harm to children (like octopus mothers). We may work in the media but we are not total monsters. Keep it vague and non-committal. Try "Reading Goldilocks will promote healthy breakfasts to children, but could it risk them growing into furniture destroying maniacs?". That sort of thing.

8. Nice things are good for you

Lets face it, being healthy is dull.

If eating a healthy balanced diet was 100% pleasurable we wouldn’t be in a grip of an obesity epidemic. As a researcher, you're on to a winner if you can hype your research to suggest that "eating chocolate/drinking red wine/lying in bed watching Jeremy Kyle all day keeps you healthy".

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that (do try to keep up). More likely its only trace elements in the nice thing that is good for you – and even then only in tiny quantities. Do not mention that in your press release.

9. "This is what I reckon"

Don’t actually have any evidence? Don’t worry – all you need is a reasonably coherent and plausible opinion, a few letters after your name and ideally a white coat. The media will then probably take what you say as gospel. Or in news speak: “It’s official”.

Some academics apppear to have astonishing abilities to generate acres of press coverage without having published any peer-reviewed evidence for decades. If you feel guilty about spouting opinions without any hard evidence to back them up, don't worry, you'll be in good company with cabbies and politicians.

10. Forget everything you ever learned in medical school

There are fundamental truisms that underpin evidence-based medicine. If you want to make news print (and get that major research grant) you need to ignore all of these. For example:

  • Correlation does not imply causation. But it could though, couldn't it? Remember, The Guardian is not a peer-reviewed journal.
  • You cannot extrapolate the results of a study on a small and specific sample size to the population at large. But you should if you want to talk about it with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight.
  • Results in animal studies may not be replicated in humans. This is true, but who really cares when you can generate a sexy headline based on the reproductive behaviour of slime moulds?
  • The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. But remember: no-one ever gave William of Occam a column in the HuffPo did they?
  • Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. To be honest, we don't really know what this means

Armed with these 10 tips you are guaranteed to get a news splash in 2014. Then we can write a Behind the Headlines analysis about your flawed study design, disingenuous interpretation and shameless spinning. Everyone’s a winner!

NHS Attribution