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The Making of Medicine

How to Decipher a Press Release

If you read enough of my releases on new research discoveries, you’ll notice they’re somewhat similar. That’s because I have an unofficial template. My goal with these is to make complex science accessible to laypeople and reporters alike. Reporters often have short attention spans and a lot of stuff competing for their time, so I like to get the point across right away. If you read the first two or three paragraphs (grafs, in newspaper speak), you should get the entire story in a nutshell. If you keep reading past the first subheading, that’s great. But, secretly, it’s not necessary. I assume many reporters won’t, and sometimes their questions bear that out. Other times I’m wowed at how well they understand the material.

Newspapers are typically written at a fourth-grade level, and that’s my goal as well, though sometimes the topic makes that difficult. And sometimes the scientists push back when I try to simplify the science. That can be because they’ve been trained to speak, think and write in a certain way, or because they fear the nuance will be lost. And sometimes it’s because I’m off base, having either misunderstood their work or failed to capture its essence. So we go back and forth until we find common ground. The end product should both describe the discovery accurately and make it understandable to the world at large.

If you run across a press release that’s hard to understand, it’s either poorly written, shellacked in trade language or deliberately unintelligible. In business releases, for examples, companies will sometimes try to bury bad news, so they slip it in down at the bottom, cloaked in business speak. Sometimes they manage to make very bad news sound like good news, so read carefully.

For me, producing releases that are incomprehensible defeats the whole point of what I do. If you ever read one of mine and are left baffled, I’ve either lost a battle or let you down.

All that said, it’s nice to have this blog so that I can break out of my release format. A lot of cool things don’t fit the standard format.

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