With a mission to provide the press and the public with high-quality scientific information and sources, the Science Media Centers in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have become influential, but controversial players in the world of journalism. While some reporters find them helpful, others believe they are biased toward government and industry scientists.
This three-part series will examine the role that the original center plays in the UK, the performance of the centers during the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and the proposal to launch a Science Media Center in the US. For each installment, two writers were asked to submit opening statements replying to the question in the headline. They exchanged those statements and wrote short replies.
In Part 1, Fiona Fox, the director of the SMC in the UK, and Connie St. Louis, the director Science Journalism MA program at City University London and president of the Association of British Science Writers, respond to the question: “Does the UK model help journalists?” Parts 2 and 3 will be posted on Wednesday and Friday.
Fiona Fox, opening statement:
When Cherie Blair, the wife of the former British Prime Minister, opened the SMC back in 2001, she did little to win over a group of skeptical science journalists by suggesting that the new center would help them do their job properly. As well as irritating the reporters, Cherie missed the point that the center was not being set up to help journalists, but to support more scientists to engage effectively with journalists. The SMC’s founding philosophy reflected this focus on fixing science rather than fixing journalism, stating that “The Media will ‘Do’ Science Better when Scientists ‘Do’ the Media Better,” and to this day I still invoke Pallab Ghosh, the BBC science correspondent, telling scientists to stop winging from the side-lines, learn the rules of the game and get onto the pitch.
But while the SMC’s mission may be to help renew public trust in science, I believe that in doing so we help journalists as well. By facilitating more scientists to enter the fray, we have made it much easier for journalists to access the best science in a timely manner. During crises like Fukushima, or on complex and politicized stories like ‘Climategate’, the SMC proactively offers great experts for interview, quotes from leading scientists, reliable factsheets, and press briefings where journalists can question experts in the middle of an unfolding story. This easy and early access helps science journalists to report stories accurately and in-depth, and crucially gives them an advantage in the newsroom when general news editors are circling around a science story.
Outside times of crisis, the center helps journalists in different ways. ‘New’ in a newsroom means news. ‘New’ in science means preliminary and unproven. By asking third party experts to put new research into its wider context by commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of the study in question we help journalists to work out whether a study deserves the front page splash or a nice cautious piece on page eight. Sometimes there are wildly different views about the same study so there is still plenty of need for journalistic judgment. But often things are more clear cut, with a range of experts reminding journalists that a new study is preliminary, small, only done in mice and not worthy of headline news. On other stories the opposite happens, and the unanimously positive reactions we issued from five renowned stem cell experts to the recent Mitalipov paper in Cell probably helped to guarantee its front-page splash. Journalists particularly appreciate this work, with Richard Black, the BBC’s respected former environment correspondent once saying, “for many the Science Media Centre is a vehicle to help reporters negotiate the minefield of churnalism and public relations”.
And almost all the UK news science journalists make use of SMC press briefings held weekly at the Wellcome Trust. Some are with groups of leading scientists answering questions on topical controversies like shale gas or bisphenol A. Others explain where we are with emerging viruses like Schmallenberg or H7N9. And some are run because a new study is especially complex or statistics heavy and we want to get the authors in a room with the journalists to thrash out what can and cannot be accurately claimed.