Behavior Analysis in the News: Our Revolution Has Not Yet Been Televised

What if you built a revolutionary science — one literally capable of “saving the world” — and nobody noticed?

That’s how it sometimes seems. The science of behavior has targeted a vast array of socially important issues, and yet somehow it gets little love from a world in need of a vast array of solutions. Most people seem unaware of what we do or how we do it (and when they occasionally find out, they may misunderstand in ways that are detrimental to behavior analysis; e.g., see here and here).

This perplexes behavior analysts. The practical value of our science seems so obvious. If you follow the research literature, nearly every month there’s another novel application with hard data documenting its effectiveness. And beset as members of the public are by “wicked problems,” they should be hungry for effective solutions, right? It follows that those who make a living by informing the public — members of the news media — should be equally hungry for stories about those solutions.

And yet some kind of divide clearly separates behavior analysts who create solutions and the news media that could explain them to the public. Think: When was the last time your local newspaper or radio or TV station ran a story related to behavior analysis? How about national media? Of all the articles published in behavior analysis journals in 2022, only nine articles  received news coverage verified by the database. This database tracks some 5,000 news sources, and it seems incomprehensible that, among of all of the great behavior analysis papers published during the past year, these sources noticed only nine of them.

We should bemoan our discipline’s dearth of news coverage. What we shouldn’t do, however, is fall victim to the “just world” fallacy that if you do really good work those who create the news will automatically report about it. Among the problems: Our labs and our clinics are not public spaces, so the typical journalist simply won’t know what happens there. And our discipline’s journals do not invite outsiders in. Their content sits behind a paywall, and the abstract that announces the content to behavior analysts often is unintelligible to other people. If a divide exists, perhaps it is of our making.

Direct Outreach to the Public?

One approach that behavior analysts have tried to increase public awareness of the discipline is to cut out the middle man. Rather than rely on the news media to inform the public about us, they have tried doing that directly. For instance, from 1989-2012, Marshall University’s Joe Wyatt published a newsletter called Behavior Analysis Digest that was intended to explain the value of behavior analytic work to laypeople (issues from 2004 on can be accessed through the Ebsco Host service used by many research libraries). Joe once told me that the primary goal was direct outreach to the public, and he hoped to make the newsletter available in high-traffic public spaces like physician offices.

Similarly, in 2001-2012 the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies sponsored a publication called Behavioral Technology Today. Its purpose was to feature “technically valid yet readily understood information about the application of the results of behavioral research to problems of general public concern” and accordingly “to assist the technology transfer process by allowing contributors to document their accomplishments…. Perhaps our most important audience is the general public whom we intend to reach with the help of selected members of the mass media.”

Some very smart people worked very hard on these publications, and I think behavior analysts will enjoy a lot of their content. But there is no record of how effectively the publications informed the general public about our discipline. For instance, I don’t know how many physician offices actually displayed Behavior Analysis Digest or how many patients actually read it. I don’t have access to web traffic data that would verify the attention these two publications earned once they went online in the early 2000s. Suffice it to say that if you’re hearing about these publications for the first time, they likely didn’t make much of a public splash.

[By the way, I’m also aware of no “trickle-up” effect wherein informing the public directly whet their collective appetites, which the news media then sought to feed. At the time of this writing, the database contained more than 1.9 million news mentions of articles published 2012 or before. Zero of these mentions referenced Behavior Analysis Digest or Behavioral Technology Today.]

To be absolutely clear, this is not criticism but rather a sort of post mortem inquiry. Why did such well-intentioned efforts not accomplish more? I think they encountered a couple of pitfalls. First, they asked behavior analysts to write for the public. Behavior analysts have many skills, but communicating clearly to everyday people isn’t necessarily one of them. Feel free to check out some articles in Behavior Analysis Digest or Behavioral Technology Today, and then ask yourself: Would your neighbors (plumbers, first grade teachers, mechanics, actuaries) be interested? Would they understand? Professionals in the news media, however, are intimately attuned to what the public is likely to care about (more on this below), and they are trained explicitly in how to communicate about those things.

Second, even with the best possible public-friendly content, behavior analysts don’t control information-distribution channels. You can write all of the audience-friendly content you want, but getting it in front of the right people is another matter entirely. News companies, by contrast, specialize in building up a reliable audience to which all of their content is pushed. For instance, my daughter is a reporter at the Tampa Times, whose print and digital editions reach about 1.3 million readers per week. It’s possible that every one of her stories reaches more people than all of the articles in Behavior Analysis Digest and Behavioral Technology Today across all of their years of publication. Let that sink in for a minute.

Let the Pros Do It (But Give ‘Em a Hand)

To me, the take-home message is this: If the goal is to convey the benefits of our discipline to the masses, direct-to-public communication about behavior analysis, by behavior analysts, probably is a poor investment. Those best equipped to tell our story are the people who tell stories to the public for a living — journalists. But they will only do so under certain circumstances that behavior analysts need to understand to have realistic hopes of gaining more news attention.

Attention, in the form of news coverage, is someone’s behavior, and therefore amenable to a functional analysis. The questions we should be asking about journalist behavior concern stimulus control and reinforcement. Under what circumstances will journalists become aware of work in behavior analysis? And under what circumstances will reporting about behavior analysis be reinforced? The answers to these questions are imbedded in three key facts about the news industry.

News Industry Fact #1: Digital clicker training. Most news companies are for-profit businesses that make a sizeable portion of their income by selling advertisements. Moreover, what an advertiser will pay for an ad depends on the size of the audience that encounters it. Audience size depends partly on how interested people are in the published content. Therefore, journalists decide what to cover based partly on how likely prospective stories are to interest the audience

In an age where most news content is accessible digitally, the decision of what to cover is increasingly an evidence-based practice. The primary measure of audience attention is “clicks” — shorthand for things news consumers do to access content online, which real-time analytics quantify in minute detail. News companies notice which of their articles get noticed, and editors can pressure staff to create stories that will generate clicks. Individual journalists acquire a learning history that teaches what kinds of stories are likely, and unlikely, to function as be clickbait.

Unfortunately, stories that are civically important and those that the public rewards with clicks may not be the same stories. My daughter, the journalist, has written about many weighty issues, including abusive practices at immigration detention centers, sexual predators among the college professorate, and the disastrous effects of Hurricane Ian. These are matters about which she is passionate and about which the public needs to know. But one of her most-clicked stories — I am not making this up — is about senior citizens finding companionship with robot puppies.

Behavior analysts must understand that the news-industry quest for clicks places a high premium on content that interests a lot of people. Yet, as others have noted, behavior analysts have a tendency to invest a lot of effort into problems that directly concern only a small portion of the population (like autism). The more specialized the work in behavior analysis, the smaller its potential audience. And the reality is that, for journalists, covering small-audience topics is unlikely to be reinforced.

News Industry Fact #2: Content sharing. The growth of the internet has not been kind to traditional news outlets like print newspapers and broadcast television. It diverted eyes that used to fuel advertising revenue, so the news business isn’t as profitable as it once was. Some outlets have closed down entirely, including several that have won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting, like the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star. Many outlets that are still in business have significantly downsized, with newsroom employment dropping by more than half since 2004. My own local newspaper, which once had about a dozen full-time journalists, now employs just one. This trend has left news outlets hungry for content that does not require a local reporter to create it. As a result, news outlets have become increasingly reliant on wire services (for instance, see here) like that of the Associated Press, which syndicates news stories (i.e., shares them among subscribing publications).

A side effect of tight economics is that many once-independent local publications have been bought out by corporations that seek to preserve profits by cutting costs. This has exacerbated staff reductions, but also created a way to generate inexpensive content. My local newspaper, for instance, is owned by a company that runs 77 newspapers and a few hundred other publications. Any story that any of these publications create can be seamlessly shared with any of the others. For instance, an article written by a journalist at one of the bigger and better-staffed newspapers in the network can potentially appear in each of the 76 others, at no additional cost to the company. In contemporary journalism, then, getting a journal article covered by one news outlet clears a path for it to be covered by many. The trick is to generate the initial coverage that starts news dominos falling — and this is an exercise in stimulus control.

News Industry Fact #3: The power of the press release. Somehow, people who write news stories must become aware of the work done by behavior analysts and, just as important, they need to understand how it connects to the interests of their audience.

Toward this end, it certainly is possible, and desirable, for individual behavior analysts to cultivate relationships with individual journalists; here are some comments on doing that. But a more efficient technique is to reach out to multiple news outlets simultaneously through a press release describing valuable behavior analytic work. According to

A press release is a short, compelling news story written by a public relations professional and sent to targeted members of the media. The goal of a press release is to pique the interest of a journalist or publication. The press release should contain all the essential information (who? what? where? when? how? and most importantly why?) for the journalist to easily produce his own story. A press release should read like a news story, written in third-person, citing quotes and sources and containing standard press release information.

Here’s a template for what a science-focused press release might look like. The idea behind a press release is to distribute it to journalists who may be looking for story ideas. The release contains the seed of a story, hopefully presented in compelling way that telegraphs the story’s “clickability,” and tells the interested journalist who to contact for more information. Although the defining purpose of a news release is to recruit journalist attention, in light of staffing shortages it’s not uncommon for news outlets to simply publish a well-prepared press release with minimal editing. In a future post we’ll look at how one behavior analysis journal article benefitted considerably from this effect.

Standard advice seems to be to prepare a press release and pitch it to potential news outlets before a journal article is published, for two reasons. First, the process takes time. Second, news outlets like “breaking” news that they can potentially feature before competitors do. Once a journal article is released, anyone can cover it, so it becomes “old” news. If you scan science news sites, therefore, you’ll find quite a few stories on in-press journal articles and papers presented at conferences or preprints released on non-peer-reviewed sites like arXiv. There are even news stories on in-progress research projects. Much of this coverage results from effective press releases.

If you have a study that you think is newsworthy, then, possibly the most important consideration is who should prepare a press release about it. There are lots of suggestions for how to write your own, but let’s be honest: The specialized communication skills of journalists and public relations (PR) professionals simply aren’t taught in behavior analysis graduate programs. Imagine our horror if the roles were reversed: An ambitious PR professional decides to undertake one of the research studies or applied behavioral programs that are our bread and butter. Oy. When an effective press release is called for, the person for the job is a PR professional who knows how to write it and pitch it to receptive publications. If you’re employed at a university or large agency, you’re in luck: Your institution probably has a PR professional who can help you decide whether your work is newsworthy and, if so, how best to get it noticed. If you don’t have ready access to a PR professional, it’s worth considering, for your most newsworthy projects, collaborating with someone who does.

I suggest working with a local PR professional because the contingencies align that person’s interests with yours. After all, the job of an in-house PR professional depends on successfully promoting in-house research or services. The other option is to contract for external PR assistance. Back in the mid-2000s, the Association for Behavior Analysis International hired a PR firm for a year to try to generate positive publicity for the discipline. There were some successes, but in the end ABAI decided the payoff was not worth the cost. My own opinion is that the schedule of reinforcement was wrong: That firm got paid regardless what news coverage was achieved, and we all know what happens with a lack of contingency. The project also faced challenges that are easy to surmount locally. For instance, in searching for story ideas, a PR professional who knows nothing about behavior analysis might find it overwhelming to monitor the entire discipline. By contrast, when you bring one idea to your local PR professional, it is easy enough to talk it through with no loss of focus.

Coming Soon: A Case Study in Effective Promotion

Now that we’ve examined how the news industry operates, it’s time, in an upcoming post, to check out a success story about a recent article in a behavior analysis journal that was covered in over 100 different news outlets with a potential audience of over 80 million individuals. To highlight the importance of active outreach to the news media, this article went unnoticed by news outlets for five months after it was published. Then a skillfully written and promoted press release sent it viral. It’s a fun story. Stay tuned.

Useful Resources

General information on recruiting news attention

Writing a press release