Earlier this spring, HBO’s Last Week Tonight host John Oliver put the spotlight on healthcare journalism and communications—and more specifically, shamed the industry for simplifying complex and jargon-rich topics at the expense of substance. If you can excuse the vulgarities of the show, it’s worth the watch.
In the months since it aired, I haven’t stopped thinking about it, because this clip really hit home for me. As a content writer, most of my workload involves simplifying complex clinical studies for PR. But are we, as healthcare communications folks, going too far?
Yes, it’s our job to communicate impact without the burden of complexity. And yes, we have to find a way to accommodate the limited attention spans of mainstream audiences. Most often, that means stripping unimportant details and technical terms for headlines and bullet points that matter. But in the case of scientific research, Oliver suggests that we’re distilling the message and syndicating falsehoods that could pose real danger to people’s lives.
How do we change it? The onus is on everyone—the scientists themselves, the PR people and the journalists. But the readers also hold responsibility—and as consumers, that means we have to stop giving so much weight to the kinds of distorted work that equated a glass of wine to an hour at the gym (as tempting as it may be to believe that kind of sorcery).
News travels fast, regardless of whether or not it’s true. But as content creators, we have the power to correct it before it’s too late. More than that—we have the responsibility to do so. It just means we have to flip the scales and sacrifice simplicity for substance (instead of the other way around). Here are four ways to do it without feeding the junk science frenzy:
- Explain it visually: If words don’t give the topic its due credit, visualize the story. Tell it through infographics that help readers understand the depth, limitations and impact of the research. Often, charts and photos can give the kind of straightforward context that narratives tend to overstate. If you need inspiration, search the terms on Google Images to see how the story has been communicated in the past. And if you think the topic is too complex for visual representation, think again.
- Temper enthusiasm: Medical research is no black and white matter; there are always limitations, challenges and considerations. Many of the researchers I work with encourage me to temper enthusiasm when big news breaks. And that’s because positive findings can’t always be taken at face value, especially if studies include—as Oliver mentions—small participation pools, nonhuman trials, statistical finagling or control-less studies. Disclose those challenges; they present an opportunity to look toward the future. Are researchers planning future phases of the research that expand participation or include human patients? Are they not because of limited funding or some other snag? Either way, those answers add context that the pieces otherwise wouldn’t have.
- Stop the causation. Not every study produces insights clear enough for a sweeping statement. Few do, yet there’s this temptation to link findings to good or bad health outcomes. Research is a slow and methodical process that takes time before accurate causes and effects surface. Resist the urge to generalize studies with significant, jaw-dropping headlines, because it’s okay to leave things open-ended without concrete and immediate conclusions. Many times, the story may simply be that researchers have found interesting insights on the path to bigger answers. Science is evolving, after all.
Most importantly, understand the difference between sacrificing the terminology and sacrificing the substance. There’s no harm in finding clear and concise alternatives to explain the technical parts, as long as they don’t change the meaning. Because with everything, you should protect the substance of the research and respect its limitations. Someone’s life may depend on it.