Whatever comes of it, Nature’s editorial suggested that efforts like the Leveson inquiry may not make as much of an impact on science journalism as alternative, digital media:
Through online forums, blogs and Twitter, a cottage industry has grown up around instant criticism of dodgy scientific claims and dubious findings. This parallel journalism is increasingly coming to the attention of the mainstream press — as demonstrated by the rising number of stories in the press that were first broken by blogs.
It may seem thankless at times, but the army of online commentators who point out the errors, the inconsistencies and the confounding factors, and from time to time just scream ‘bullshit’, have the power to hold the press to account. This ongoing war of attrition against those who would put their own agendas above the facts cannot take away their platform, but it can chip away at something they prize even more: their relevance, and with it their pernicious influence.
“There is now a small army of nerd bloggers who, whenever they come across a misleading story, will stand up and point out the flaws,” he wrote in an e-mail. “This is obviously therapeutic for the nerds - I count myself as one of them - and preserves refutations online, searchable and indexed, in a way that may come up on a Google search on a specific issue, even if a blanket mass audience isn’t reached as effectively through blogs as through a newspaper.”
Nonetheless, “it’s hard to be sure if this has an impact on journalists,” he added. The journalism community’s response to his media criticism “consists largely of threats, abuse, crude attempts at blackmail, complaints with forged documentation, and the occasional smear.”
By way of example, Goldacre cited an incident in 2010 in which a health reporter for The Independent scolded him for reasonable criticism of an Observer article that mischaracterized a study of the effects of omega-3 fish oil on brain activity in children. He also cited an incident in early December in which The Observer’s ombudsman reprimanded bloggers for reasonable criticism about a story that touted an unproven and questionable form of cancer treatment.
“To me, stories like these tell a pretty disheartening story about British journalism and the likelihood of it reacting positively to justified criticism from outside,” Goldacre wrote in his e-mail to CJR. “They demonstrate a failure to react in a mature, human fashion, when errors are reasonably pointed out.”
That’s unfortunate. Journalists should be open to and learn from reasonable criticism. But the emphasis there is on reasonable. In turning its gaze toward science journalism, the Leveson inquiry must take care not to become a witch hunt.
Journalists must have leeway to criticize powerful scientists and scientific organizations without feat of retribution. One should not forget the example of science writer Simon Singh, whom the British Chiropractic Association accused of libel for suggesting that there was little evidence for some treatments recommended by chiropractors. Despite an initial judgment against Singh, the writer won an appeal that allowed him to defend his criticism as a statement of opinion rather than a statement of fact, and the association withdrew its lawsuit in April 2010.
It seems unlikely that Leveson inquiry will turn persecutory in its examination of science journalism, however. In fact, a few placed recommendations along the lines of those suggested by the SMC could be helpful. Science journalism does, after all, have a direct impact on the way people make important life decisions, and it must be held to the highest standards.