The Leveson inquiry into the “culture, practice, and ethics” of the British press resulting from the News International phone-hacking scandal has caught science journalism in its tractor beam.
In the course of his opening statement in mid-November, Robert Jay, counsel to the inquiry, mentioned that “members of the scientific community may be providing the Inquiry with evidence along the lines that much real harm is done by certain sections of the Press who, it is said, do not always apply the scientific method to their reports or commentaries upon subjects of topical scientific interest.”
In an editorial last week, the journal Nature urged scientists to use the Leveson inquiry as an “opportunity to fight back against the agenda-driven reporting,” asserting that:
Journalism that favours attitude over accuracy is more common than scientists suspect, and not just on the comment pages or in the tabloids. And it is also more damaging — with news editors behind the scenes ordering certain lines on high-profile stories, no matter what the science says.
Not many people or groups within the scientific community seem to be availing themselves of the opportunity to complain, however.
Fiona Fox, the chief executive of the London-based Science Media Centre (SMC), sent an e-mail to a network of science communicators in the UK called STEMPRA and received “lots” of responses from scientific organizations saying they did not plan to submit anything to the Levson inquiry.
So the SMC, a press office and clearinghouse for scientific information and contacts, solicited feedback from a group of science press officers and journalists and submitted a twelve-page document saying that although it “does not believe that science reporting should be treated as a special case,” it welcomed the chance to “step back and reflect” on the ways to improve coverage.
“When the media gets it wrong the impact is devastating and causes real harm to individuals and society,” the Centre argued, citing case studies involving the credulous or sensational reporting of alleged connections between childhood vaccinations and autism; sleeping position during pregnancy and stillbirth; and misdiagnosed miscarriages and early termination of pregnancy.
In addition to erroneous and misleading reporting, the SMC’s statement addressed the issue of agenda-driven reporting, as singled out by the Leveson inquiry.
“We accept that the UK’s newspapers have a fine tradition of campaigning newspapers and we would not want to argue against that,” Fox wrote in an e-mail. “However we state that we do not accept that requirements and standards of accuracy can be sacrificed to a newspapers’ campaigning agenda as has happened before with newspaper campaigns against genetically-modified crops, climate science, etc. Taking an editorial line against GM or climate change is one thing - but including inaccurate or misleading news reports in the newspaper is wrong and should not happen.”
The SMC’s most significant recommendation to the inquiry was that the UK’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC)—an independent arbiter with no real parallel in the US—change a rule stating that only an individual scientist involved in a story can file a complaint, allowing the organization representing the scientists and others in the scientific community to file as well. Beyond that, it counseled the Leveson inquiry to take a number of other sensible, but familiar measures:
• New guidelines for the reporting of science - these guidelines would be drawn up by science journalists and used primarily by news editors and general reporters. They could also be used by a newly strengthened PCC to help adjudicate on complaints.
• Encourage newspapers to appoint at least one news editor and sub editor with a background in science reporting.
• Encourage newspapers to ensure that all science stories are checked by specialist science reporters and that news editors defer to their specialists’ judgment on the quality or otherwise of science stories.
• Headlines on important public health stories should be agreed by the relevant science reporter.
• Basic science training should be offered as a matter of course as part of the overall training of journalists.
• Corrections of serious inaccuracies should be as prominent as the original story, including in how they are promoted (e.g. via social media).