Behavior Analysis in the News – A Researcher and a Public Relations Professional Dish on How One Journal Article Went Viral

Behavior analysts believe they have built a science that demands societal attention — attention that we find is too often in short supply. Therefore, when the world does take notice of us, we should “notice them noticing us” and learn from that.

In terms of attention from the news media, one 2022 behavior analysis article in particular went viral: A report by Clay and colleagues in Behavior Analysis in Practice titled Advancing methods in animal-assisted intervention: Demonstration of starting points in clinical practice for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The database, which tabulates mentions of scholarly articles in a variety of non-scholarly sources, showed that this article was featured in 37 unique news stories, placing it at the 95th percentile among millions of articles in the database representing a wide variety of disciplines.

Actually, the Clay et al. (2022) article got way more coverage than that, because the database can access, and therefore document attention in, only certain kinds of news sources. To provide a different context, the table shows some publications that featured stories on Clay et al., along with links to their stories and estimates of each publication’s potential reach (i.e., possible readers, estimated based on the number of unique monthly visitors to a web site). At the end of this post you’ll find a list of almost 100 other news outlets that covered the article.

Potential Reach Publication
53,000,000 Scribd
15,300,000 US News and World Report
1,300,000 PhillyVoice
1,000,000 Medical Xpress
800,000 EurekAlert!
800,000 Tulsa World
730,000 Arizona Daily Star
600,000 Richmond Times-Dispatch
450,000 Winston-Salem Journal
400,000 HealthDay
350,000 The Roanoke Times
345,000 The Press of Atlantic City
340,000 Futurity
155,000 Mirage News
77,000 The  Montana Standard
25,000 The Weekly Journal
350 Disability Insider

All told, the Clay et al. (2022) article got coverage in a mind-boggling array of publications that includes some very high-profile sources. Total potential reach was at least 81 million readers.

What made the article so appealing to news outlets and the everyday people who consume them? Here are some thoughts  from lead author Casey Clay, who worked at University of Missouri when the article was written, and Brian Consiglio, a Research News Strategist at the University of Missouri News Bureau, who got the viral news-coverage ball rolling.

The story Casey and Brian tell is instructive to anyone who thinks their own research is newsworthy. To properly understand the story, however, you first need to know how the news business operates. Key point: In contemporary journalism, 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. With that in mind, here’s Casey and Brian.

BEHAVIOR SCIENCE BLOGS (BSB): Casey, what led you to choose your research topic? What made you think it was important?

CASEY CLAY: I was a faculty member at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) when the research was conducted, and there I also had the opportunity to work as a clinical director at an autism center affiliated with the university. In this capacity I supervised clinical services and arranged practicum opportunities for master’s students pursuing their BCBA. The leadership of the center decided on getting a therapy dog, which was a fairly costly and could eat up a lot of a child’s clinic time). As a behavior analyst I was skeptical of the effectiveness of potentially pseudoscientific interventions for kids with autism. I was also concerned about the use of therapy animals and the time that might be spent engaged with clients I was overseeing.

After reviewing the literature, I realized the procedures for animal-assisted therapy are kind of all over the place and the relevant research often isn’t very good. I had a line of research related to assessing preference and reinforcing efficacy of non-traditional stimuli (i.e., social interactions, video-based preference assessment). I figured I could combine these areas and put together a study that could test whether the center’s new therapy dog could be a reinforcer, and in what arrangement was this the case.

Also, I just love dogs.

BSB: Did you have any inkling that your topic would have so much public appeal?

CASEY CLAY: I thought it might, as therapy animals seem to be a hot-button issue that is also tied to scientific, political, and legal debate. However, I had no idea the article would go viral the way it did, especially given the general skepticism or lack of interest that followed when I discussed the study with colleagues. Most folks loved the idea of doing research with dogs and said how fun that would be, but rolled their eyes when “therapy” was mentioned.

BSB: What was your experience with peer review? In behavior analysis, we talk a lot about social validity and the social importance of applied research. Did reviewers seem to appreciate that this was something that would capture the public’s imagination?

CASEY CLAY; Peer review was rough, and the article went through multiple versions. I’m shocked it went viral considering the response I got from journal editors and reviewers. I’m not sure if it’s the job of an editor or reviewer to anticipate general societal interest in the topic when advancing an article for publication, but in this case reviewers did not respond favorably. The article was submitted to three other journals before being accepted by BAP. I won’t name those other journals, but when I think of how badly they misjudged the social validity of this research I will admit to a bit of schadenfreude.

BSB Comment: Let’s throw journal editors and reviewers a bone here and acknowledge that they are primed by their experiences in the scholarly world to equate research importance with scholarly attention (e.g., citations). But Casey is not wrong. Members of the public may apply different standards. The attention they pay to journal articles, as measured through mentions in places like news stories and social media, is virtually uncorrelated with citation counts. Suffice it to say that a science which ignores how regular people think about social importance does so at its own peril.

BSB: After publication, the article went largely unnoticed by the news media for about five months. It went viral after being featured in a University of Missouri press release. Why do you think that was?

CASEY CLAY: I think the lag from publication to press coverage had to do with the time it took to write the story and the work Brian put in on the back end to contact other outlets with leads. It’s interesting this seems like a delay, but is nothing compared to the gap from research to practice!

BRIAN CONSIGLIO: As with most of my press releases, I pitched the story to newspapers, television stations and radio stations in Missouri. Then I pitched to EurekAlert! (science news website for the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Futurity (which covers research news for Association of American Universities members like Mizzou). Then I pitched it to national reporters, autism writers and pet writers through a website called Cision. Then I pitched it to HealthDay consumer health news, which picked up the story on their wire service, from which lots of papers across the country picked up the story. Sometimes it helps when other health or science websites see the story got posted somewhere and then they copy and paste the story on their own website, and the story spreads like wildfire.

BSB Comment: To accentuate Brian’s point, “spreading like wildfire” includes a lot of outlets reprinting a press release or a story from another publication. You’ll find a lot of similarities between Brian’s original press release and some of the stories linked in the table. This highlights the importance of making it easy for news outlets to cover an article by providing content that can be reprinted or easily adapted. In this case, it may have helped that the press release came out just ahead of World Mental Health Day, an occasion that sensitizes news outlets to mental health issues.

BSB: How did the two of you ended up connecting?

CASEY CLAY: Mizzou has the oldest and some say best journalism program in the nation. I picked up on this and during my time at Mizzou kept an ongoing dialog with a couple of journalists and the communications director at my center. At one point before the article was published in BAP I was interviewed by the local news — I think this kept me going in the peer review process, despite repeated rejections.

Brian actually reached out to me. I was a bit surprised by this because by then I was no longer working at Mizzou.

BRIAN CONSIGLIO: As a research public relations writer at Mizzou, I am always looking at research at MU and I make judgement calls on which studies I think have the best chance to get picked up by media if I were to write a one page press release about Mizzou research is somehow geared toward solving whatever the issue is. It helps people see the value in MU research.

Back in 2020, I wrote a press release about therapy dog research at Mizzou, and Courtney Jorgenson, who I interviewed, kept saying Casey Clay deserved most of the credit. I thought the topic was interesting. A few years later when I interviewed Emma Keicher (Casey’s co-author) she basically said the same thing, that Casey Clay deserved most of the credit. So I reached out to him.

I was originally alerted to the study by the communications person at the Mizzou’s Thompson Autism Center and I knew the topic would be “media friendly” and interesting to the general public. Most people might assume therapy dogs would help kids with autism, but Emma Keicher told me that out of the six kids in the study with autism, two loved the dog, two seemed indifferent toward the dog, and two wanted no part of being near the dog. Made me realize you could do the same study with six kids who didn’t have autism and possibly get the same results. Pretty interesting stuff.

BSB: Brian, you work in public relations. Is there a difference in how research might be portrayed in a press release versus, say, by an independent journalist?

BRIAN CONSIGLIO: I went to journalism school at Mizzou where I learned about interviewing people, but the main difference is as a PR writer, all my stories about Mizzou research are 100% positive, whereas in general journalists do stories about topics of interest to the general public, and they don’t mention whether they agree or disagree — they just state the facts independently and let consumers decide for themselves what they think of the topic. As a PR profession I guess you could say I look at story ideas through the lens of making Mizzou look good.

BSB: The way research is described in an APA Style empirical report is very different from how members of the public consume a story. Can you talk a bit about how the press release approached describing your research, and how this differs from the way researchers share research information?

CASEY CLAY: As researchers, we’re trained to be conservative and avoid making bold, sweeping claims. But not so by the press whose goal might be to catch the reader’s attention. There is also a difference in language. Researchers try to use terminology that is conceptually systematic and descriptions that are technologically sound, which might not be effective with a lay audience.

The language used in the Mizzou press release was geared toward a laypersons and likely was more interesting to read than our abstract or introduction. The press release itself was very accurate, but some publications covered the article in a way that does not summarize the findings correctly. For example, some reported as if it was a large-scale group design that drew conclusions related to population-level variables.

BSB: Do you have any advice for behavior analysts who want to increase the public visibility of their research?

CASEY CLAY: You have to do a little self-promotion. This is something that is sort of looked down upon in our field and in academia generally, but in my opinion it is a critical skill and ends up benefitting the field and promoting the spread of our science as a whole. This skill involves making efforts to network, creating social media accounts and posting on websites. I think it also involves going out of your comfort zone and the ABA silo to other fields and approaching their experts — I did this with the animal-assisted interventions article. Approach can be a cold call type email or a message on a social media site. Also, I think it’s important to be involved in your local or state ABAI chapter. These chapters usually put on yearly conferences and also have several workshops where they need presenters and experts.

BRIAN CONSIGLIO: In general, it is good to start by explaining what the issue is in society that you are trying to solve in the first place. Then use that as the transition point into how the research is geared toward solving the problem. And keep the messaging easy for “average joes” in the general public to understand. People can relate to the idea about if kids with autism are anxious or stressed in social situations, researchers are thinking about possible interventions to help them out. People should know that, just like any other kid, some might like toys or iPads better. Some might like the dog and some might not. It’s important never to paint a broad brush and assume everyone responds to a certain intervention the same way.

Concluding Comment

The take-home message seems clear: If you’re doing interesting research, don’t wait around for news outlets to find you. In the contemporary landscape of the news industry, press releases are an active step toward connecting your research with publications that might cover it. There are many resources on how to prepare your own press release, like this one, but whenever possible it makes sense to let professionals like Brian do the heavy lifting. This is their area of expertise, just as conducting research and building successful programs is ours. They know how to write an effective release and, just as important, how and where to pitch it to receptive publications. If you’re employed at a university or large agency, you’re in luck: Your institution probably has a public relations 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 public relations professional, it’s worth considering, for your most newsworthy projects, collaborating with someone who does.

Postscript: Other News Outlets that Covered Clay et al. (2022)

MedicineNet, Targeted News Service, The Kearney Courier, St. Joseph News Press, Doctors Lounge, Brigham and Womens Hospital Newsroom, The DeWitt Observer, The Hazard Herald,, York News-Times, Killeen Daily Herald, The Independent Record, The Bradford Era, The Citizen, Cheatham County Exchange, Tyler Morning Telegraph, Statesville Record & Landmark, The Eagle, McDowell News, Muscatine Journal, The Central Virginian, The News & Advance, Crow River Media, Scottsbluff Star-Herald, Arizona Daily Sun, Opelika-Auburn News, The Billings Gazette, Daily Journal, Elko Daily Free Press, Bristol Herald Courier, Vincennes Sun Commercial, Culpeper Star-Exponent, Casper Star-Tribune, Southern Illinoisan, Fairfield Sun Times, Lebanon Express, Morristown Citizen Tribune, Napa Valley Register, The Cutoff News, The Lake Gazette, WABG-TV,, Antelope County News, KULR-TV, The Post-Star, The Journal Times, The Morgantown News Herald, Pacific Daily News, Salamanca Press, Smyth County News & Messenger, Valley News Today, The Newport Plain Talk, Curated Content Exchange, Blue Mountain Eagle, The Pantagraph, The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Black Hills Pioneer, Independent Tribune, Herald & Review, Mooresville Tribune, Winona Daily News, North Platte Telegraph, Florence Morning News, The Best Times, Beatrice Daily Sun, La Crosse Tribune,, Globe Gazette, Lincoln Journal Star, Voice of Alexandria, Albany Democrat-Herald, Rapid City Journal, Corvallis Gazette-Times, The Buffalo News, The Free Lance-Star, Grand Island Independent, Pee Dee News Network, WFMZ-TV, The De Queen Bee, KTBS-TV, Fort Bend Herald,, Dothan Eagle, The Sentinel,, Kearney Hub, The Rogersville Review, The Times & Democrat, ABC Fox Montana, Waco Tribune-Herald, Times Republican, Kenosha News, Manhattan Mercury, Grainger Today,, KOAMnewsNow, KVEW-TV