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Associations as translators

A column on CNN.com found its way to me through the Twitter grapevine last week, and it calls out a problem in the public-relations field that I think associations can answer.

In "Bad medical writing hurts public health," Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, writes that the pains of the newspaper industry have a potentially dangerous ripple effect on public health. In short:

  1. Newspapers and other media are cutting skilled science writers for financial reasons and replacing them with inexperienced writers.
  2. Medical associations host large meetings where researchers and companies present findings of their studies, and they invite the media.
  3. Brawley says drug and medical companies are naturally inclined to heavily promote their research or products at these meetings.
  4. Inexperienced journalists are easily fooled into writing about overblown or misleading medical research (and sensational headlines drive page views, which is cause for only further trouble).

This merits mention on a major news site because it potentially affects public health, but the dynamics of the situation are present in any field, not just medicine and healthcare.

There was a time when the media was the objective referee between the sources of news and the consumers of news, but clearly that role is eroding, not only as newspapers lay off skilled writers but also as the journalist's mantle is taken up by citizens with blogs and Twitter handles.

Associations can step in here and help fill the role of referee. While an association should actively promote the achievements of its industry, it should also temper sensationalism by being a voice of clarity and authority in that industry. (Perhaps akin to the association curator role that is much talked about.)

Medical and scientific organizations do this well in their journals through the peer-review process. It's understandable, however, that the buzz of a conference can stir up hype. Behind the scenes, this is when an association's PR professionals should be making themselves known to the media as expert resources.

It's easy to forget that the public (and the media that serves it) don't have the same expertise, knowledge, and vocabulary as your industry's members, and your association is in the prime spot to serve as translator and educator for those outside your realm.



There has been a similar dumbing-down or imprecision in legal reporting. News reports now routinely report verdicts of "innocent" when there is no such legal finding in our system of justice. Why? It is just to risky for "not" being inadvertently dropped when writing the correct "not guilty."

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