Science media centers & the press, part 2

How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?

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 2, Susannah Eliott and Peter Griffin, the directors of the SMC in Australia and New Zealand, respectively, and Kate Kelland, Reuters’ Health and Science Correspondent for Europe, Middle East and Africa, respond to the question: “How did the SMCs perform during the Fukushima nuclear crisis?” Part 1 is available here, and Part 3 will be posted on Friday.

Susannah Eliott, opening statement:

When the Tohoku earthquake rocked Japan in March 2011, the New Zealand Science Media Centre was already in disaster mode—three weeks earlier a large earthquake had struck Christchurch, claiming 185 lives.

The Japanese disaster was on a different scale entirely. It was immediately clear from news footage that thousands of people had been killed in the tsunami that surged ashore as a result of the earthquake. But in the wake of the disaster, the media’s attention quickly turned to the precarious situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Already fielding calls from journalists looking for experts on all aspects of the natural disaster, the SMCs were now bombarded with requests for nuclear experts who could outline what might happen if Fukushima’s reactor cores went into meltdown.

Sadly, SMCs are at their best during global disasters. Though they are independent grassroots organizations, all SMCs were set up to cut through opinion and focus on scientific evidence during times of crisis and controversy. A charter of independence that all SMCs have agreed to ensures that they are all independent of any one organization or agenda, and it enables them to collaborate on big, messy stories like Fukushima.

Staff at the newly opened Science Media Centre of Japan in Tokyo scrambled out from under their desks to gather and translate commentary and updates from shell-shocked Japanese scientists and feed them out through a Twitter stream that soon attracted 15,000 followers. Meanwhile, the SMCs in Britain, Canada, Australia and NZ, all in different time zones, were in overdrive, looking for scientists with appropriate nuclear expertise who could provide much needed context and help journalists work around the clock on an issue that was changing by the hour.

Government and industry-employed researchers in most countries were unable to speak openly about the situation in Japan, limiting the pool of available experts and amplifying the need for dispassionate and genuinely expert commentary. This was not the time for debate between ‘anti’ and ‘pro’ nuclear campaigners. Debate at a later stage would be needed, but we felt it was inappropriate while people were anxious about their immediate safety and desperately needed the facts.

Media coverage of Fukushima immediately took on a hysterical tone as speculation mounted that a Chernobyl-style meltdown was likely. With the area around Fukushima evacuated and contaminated water from the plants being flushed out to sea, it looked like the classic manmade crisis on the verge of full-fledged disaster. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. did no one any favors in its handling and communication of the crisis.

The situation was exacerbated when the plant’s status was upgraded from five to seven on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). This inappropriately put the event on a par with Chernobyl, with all its dreadful connotations. Although it was technically on the same scale as Chernobyl, the Fukushima disaster released a fraction of the fissile material.

Throughout all of this, the scientific community, aided by the SMCs, provided a voice of reason. Through dozens of “rapid reactions” featuring scientists from all over the world, online and physical briefings, backgrounders on radiation and Q&As answering journalists’ technical questions, they started cutting through the hysteria.

Scientists quoted by the SMCs were accused by some of downplaying the situation at Fukushima, but time and numerous peer reviewed studies have shown that these experts provided a good steer on the science, doing the best they could with limited information and a lot of uncertainty.

The lesson from Fukushima is that, in the midst of crisis, we need scientists to step up and interpret the facts for the media to cut through hysteria. The SMCs provide a platform for scientists to do exactly this and the public is the ultimate beneficiary.

Kate Kelland, opening statement:

Japan’s March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed it were shocking in their scale and impact. Yet almost as shocking was the speed with which global media shifted its focus away from the human tragedies to concentrate so intently on a possible nuclear meltdown.

Within a day or two of the tsunami, which killed thousands of people and swept away whole towns, stories about this death and destruction were rapidly being wiped out by reports of looming nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Rumors about global radiation risks spread, a European Commissioner predicted an “apocalypse” and several countries said they were delaying or cancelling their nuclear power programs.

This shift was disconcerting, but it also made some sense given human nature—and more particularly, the nature of newsrooms. There are few things more newsworthy than a potential nuclear disaster. And since the radiation risks were largely unknown and the fear of radiation is so heightened by its invisibility, those with a nose for news were naturally keen to find out more.

So it was that it became a daily event for me to call round British and European expert scientists, or meet them at the Science Media Centre’s briefing room, to talk through what was happening, and what might happen next.

The SMCs factsheets and background briefings became invaluable. The likes of Jim Smith of the University of Portmouth (who was often speaking on a mobile from Chernobyl when I called), Paddy Regan at Surrey University, and Malcolm Sperrin at the Royal Berkshire Hospital quickly became people I could call again and again with more and more questions.

I’d been on the health and science beat at Reuters for just over a year, and was beginning to get to grips with the complexities of cancer drugs, flu vaccines and malaria. But nuclear crises are few and far between, so this was the first time I’d used the words millisievert or radioisotope in any copy.

I knew, however, that what we needed was to be able to put scores of sometimes simple, sometimes tricky questions to experts who could give us genuine, honest answers about the risks. We also needed to be able to quiz those experts about their credentials. Who were they working for? What was their experience on nuclear disasters? Did they have any connections with the nuclear industry? Where were they getting their information from?

I remember some despairing looks when one scientist at an SMC Fukushima briefing answered this last question with breathtaking honesty, saying that for the moment at least, Sky News was one of his main sources.

Yet his answer underscored some important points about the Fukushima crisis—that data from the plant itself, as well as from the Japanese government, was scarce and patchy; that scientists, as well as journalists, were desperately keen to get more, and more accurate, information; and that the best that reporters stuck in London, New York, or other far-away cities could do was ensure the scientists we talked to were the best kind of experts giving their best judgment on the best levels of information they could get hold of at the time.

The SMC made that happen. And we could not have done the same without them. Yes, we could have gone through the same motions, and certainly we could have made the same number of phone calls and asked the same questions every day. But I have no doubt the people we could have talked to, their credibility, their answers, would have been inferior. Less intelligent, less scrutinized, less newsworthy.

Susannah Eliott and Peter Griffin, reply:

A criticism often leveled at the Science Media Centres is that on some issues the commentary we gather from scientists is one sided and doesn’t represent a range of views.

The reality is that it is not the mandate of the SMCs to seek out opposing views from scientists. It may make for more colorful news copy, but it does the discipline of science communication no favors.

Our job is to reflect the balance of evidence on a science-related issue. Often there is disagreement among scientists and our round-ups and briefings will reflect this. To serve the needs of the media we work to extremely tight timeframes and the willingness of scientists to put themselves forward at short notice determines the tone of commentary offered.

But just as often, scientists appear to be speaking in unison, something that will naturally raise the suspicions of any good journalist. Such was the case for a period during the Fukushima nuclear crisis in March and April of 2011.

With engineers still struggling to get the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor under control, dire predictions were circulating about the potential worst-case scenarios for a meltdown.

However, many of the scientists the SMC featured in its briefings in the days following the tragedy provided information that appeared to allay some of the worst fears - these comments were based on the evidence at hand, and in some cases, their experience of the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, the world’s most serious nuclear accident.

The scientists we quoted were asked to offer their expertise, not to make pronouncements about the future of nuclear power. Debate was already raging about exactly that issue, but with no certainty about the long-term impact of the incidents at Fukushima, it was not the time to add fuel to the fire. Later the SMCs were able to facilitate some of that debate.

SMCs are not in the business of quashing debate. Society must hear from a range of voices on issues such as the pros and cons of nuclear power (politicians, lobby groups, industry, etc.) - the role of an SMC is to ensure that the scientific community is one of those voices.

But as the crisis was playing out, what journalists needed was quality commentary from experts on the issues of critical importance, chief amongst them, the risks to the health of millions of Japanese citizens and the effort to get the reactor under control and limit the spread of nuclear material.

When crises occur, from pandemics and bushfires to oil spills and food scares, this is how SMCs operate - collating evidence-based information for journalists, and allowing it to inform the debate that will play out regardless of our efforts.

In doing so, we unapologetically focus on the balance of evidence. Reflecting that balance is the best service we can offer in a world awash with opinion.

Kate Kelland, reply:

As Peter and Susannah note, there was criticism of the SMCs during the Fukushima crisis that they were pushing a pro-nuclear agenda, and that the scientists they quoted in their “rapid reactions” and “roundups” always seemed to downplay the contamination and health risks. For critics, it seemed, the nuanced differences between being pro-science and pro-nuclear were difficult to see.

In my own newsroom this became a hot debate and one that, at times, kept me awake at night as I worried about the balance of our stories.

Because the SMC staff in London is very approachable, these worries were something we journalists discussed often and at length with them. We were able to question them on the validity of their sources, and push them repeatedly on whether we should have any reason to be concerned.

And because the SMC’s briefings are a free-for-all in terms of questions, we also challenged the scientists themselves about their expertise, their funding and their stance on the nuclear industry. Most of them were comfortable with being challenged and keen to be open about their backgrounds and experience.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that just as in other areas of science—be it drug discovery, global health or nuclear energy—the people who know the most and have the greatest expertise to share are only rarely completely detached from the industry. As long as that is clear to journalists, they can make up their own minds about which sources to use, and which ones to ignore.

Maybe one way for the SMCs to improve their service during such crises would be to ask the scientists offering comments to also make conflict of interest disclosures. It may, in fact, not be a bad idea to do that with all SMC activities.

Susannah Eliott, Peter Griffin, and Kate Kelland collaborated on this article. Eliott and Griffin are the directors of the Science Media Centres in Australia and New Zealand, respectively. Kelland is Reuters health and science correspondent for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Tags: , , , ,