When a reporter with The Times of London left a message just before the New Year for Jim Newman, the senior communications coordinator for the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Newman had a hunch something wasn't right.
"It was strange someone was writing about our research, and we are one of the last people they call," Newman recalls thinking.
His concern was justified. The story that followed was riddled with inaccuracies about OHSU's Dr. Charles Roselli's research on sheep. Specifically, his research looked into what made some sheep attracted to other sheep of the same gender.
Before the piece, the university had been the target of a campaign from PETA, and Newman had been working to deflect the criticism. But the story had yet to gain traction in the mainstream press. Once the Times story ran, however, the story spiraled out of control on the blogosphere, and the incorrect assertion was bandied about that Roselli sought to "cure" the sheep of their homosexuality.
Martina Navratilova, the openly gay former tennis star, wrote an open letter condemning the research. PETA continued its campaign against the OHSU, and gay rights activists joined the battle.
"Our biggest communications challenge was the lack of public understanding about what basic science research is," says Newman. "Basic science research is something that goes on every day. It really is the building blocks of science, and we needed people to understand what that consisted of."
Newman began by going to the bloggers who had written about the ongoing controversy. He reached out to both Andrew Sullivan, who writes the Daily Dish blog for The Atlantic Monthly, as well as to a blog called Empty Pockets. Both quickly corrected their writing on the subject.
"We started with the blogosphere, and I was really impressed with how quickly [it] self-corrected," Newman says. "Within 24 to 48 hours, bloggers went from writing the false claims about our research to reporting the facts."
Newman and Roselli also drafted a letter to the Times, pointing out the inaccuracies and questioning the reporting. Newman called an editor at the paper immediately and demanded a correction to run in print and for the story to be removed from the paper's Web site.
Newman credits Roselli's willingness to speak with the press following the publication of the Times piece for helping to turn the tide. Roselli gave interviews with general-interest titles explaining his research, attempting to shed light on what he was working on.
"It's hard for scientists to go out before the press because [they] feel very exposed," Roselli notes. "It's hard to explain your research, but I felt compelled only because it was such a huge response."
The ultimate coup came almost a month later when Newman secured a New York Times story that would document the publicity storm surrounding the research. The January 25 piece laid out Roselli's case. The maelstrom of publicity was based on huge misinterpretations of the research, Roselli and colleagues told the paper.
Roselli was given the opportunity to explain to the largest possible audience in a daily American newspaper how scientific research works and how grant applications are written to contain language mentioning human implications.
"In my mind that represented the end of this," Roselli says. "I felt like I didn't need to talk to any more media. It was the highest level of exposure we were going to get."
Oregon Health & Science University, senior communications coordinator
KATU-TV in Portland, OR, news producer
WKRN-TV in Nashville, TN