the observatory

Phone-Hacking Inquiry Eyes Science Journalism

Nature calls on scientists to “fight agenda-driving reporting”
December 16, 2011

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.

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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).

The Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation that supports biomedical research and the medical humanities, is drafting a submission for the Leveson inquiry. The group declined to share any details, but the document will be posted on its website once its finished, according to senior media officer Craig Brierley.

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.

Dr. Ben Goldacre, an epidemiologist and frequent media critic who writes the weekly “Bad Science” column in the Guardian, found the Nature’s perspective “fascinating and heartening.”

“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.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.