Posted tagged ‘journalism’

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

September 24, 2010

This was a not-very-well-advertised debate about science journalism,organised by the Times‘ Science Editor Mark Henderson (sorry Mark, due to The Times’ policy of charging for content you don’t get a proper link) at the RI. It was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and the speakers were Henderson, Ceri Thomas (Editor of the BBC radio 4 Today programme), Prof. Steve Rayner (Oxford, Science and Civilisation) and Ed Yong  (Information Manager at CRUK and famed science writer/blogger).

Enough with the links….down to the content…..

The RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions then opens the debate up to questions from the floor. Personally I found her method of taking 4 questions from the floor then asking for answers quite irritating as it means most people have forgotten the first question by the time it comes to be answered. Anyhow here are my summaries of the 4 positions of the speakers:

Henderson: The traditional view of impartiality and fairness is impossible to achieve. Correctness/accuracy and transparency are more important than being balanced. It is the journalist’s duty to evaluate competing claims and provide evidence, uncertainties must be acknowledged.

Thomas: Science is no different than any other subject, shouldn’t be treated differently (NB Thomas was the only speaker who was not a specialist science editor/reporter which may have something to do with his position!).  Shouldn’t take sides and it’s ok to put peoplewho are “wrong” on air. Though reporters should take the side of reason and evidence, it is important to remember that these are not the only important things, most peoplemake decisions based on emotions and irrational thoughts so these need to be acknowledged too. It’s important to represent views not “liked” by scientists where these exist to show they are out there and so they can be held to account in public.

Rayner: Mostly thought that the debate was about science policy rather than science. Scientists shouldn’t have the last say in policy debates because the debate is not about the science itself. When scientists are called on to make judgements about subjects outside of their expertise they are no better than any other layperson. Dislikes polarisation such as the portrayal of “climate deniers” as he feels this stifles debate about the real problems and the ability to reach an inbetween position.

Yong: Many reporters are lazy, don’t investigate enough. The term “scientists have claimed…” is a get-out that allows lack of investigation and lack of endorsement. Reporters must provide a context and analysis as if they don’t, in the internet age, someone else will. Shifting the necessity to make the decision onto the reader is tricky because the reader has less resources (and will) to make this decision than the reporter. All choices are subjective including what we choose to write about at all and how it is written. Overuse of quotes and getting others to tell the story for you is a problem. Reporters shouldn’t take sides with a specific scientist, theory, or science, but always take the side of truth. Journalistic practices are not always compatible with this.

This was an interesting debate as ostensibly all of the speakers were on the same side (i.e. take the side of truth) but all had quite different approaches to it. I did disagree with a few of the comments that were thrown out there. For example, Henderson said at one point that if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and it is up to jouralists to get to the bottom of things and find out about this. Which is all well and good but if the work has been peer reviewed (as in the example of the Woo Suk Hwang fraud he used),what makes journalists qualified to discover this when several peer reviewers and trained editors cannot? Because they are not experts in anything, journalists are only as good as their sources. And someone else also made the point that we all know scientists who will say certain things on certain topics, so you can pretty much always find someone who will say what you want to hear.

I also disagreed with Thomas’s position that science should not be treated differently from art or politics. In these cases, opinion and point of view actually shapes the outcome. If enough people think something, this will inform a policy or a perception of quality. But in science, there are specific rules and ways of working that define this and they are not subject to opinion, they just are. Obviously interpretation of results is variable, but  even their interpretation is based on context within science and models etc that non-scientists cannot hope to understand. If you let unscientific minds try and interpret results they won’t know where to start and you end up with the kind of statements that say that you don’t need evidence for something, like God or ghosts or the Holocaust, because you (want to) believe it so it must be true.

Rayner’s insistence through most of the debate that discussions about science in the news are mostly about science policy not science itself was interesting, but I think ultimately wrong-headed. Yes, I agree that this does happen and there is no point only taking a scientists’sviewpoint on whether stem-cell research should continue or what kind of drugs should be legal, because scientists are not equipped to pronounce on the societal concerns and consequences of the science. But they do need to be a part of the debate. If you don’t have a scientist to tell you about their research then how can you hope to anticipate the societal consequences?

There was a long-running point introduced by Fox about what “her Mum” (read non-scientist member of the public) would understand on reading news pieces. Not knowing Fox’s mum, I imaged my equally scientifically illiterate and disinterested Grandma in this position; you can insert your own beloved relative or neighbour for ease of imagination. This person is not interested in investigating something they are told further. They want to be told in words of a few syllables only what the news is, and why it is important, not to be expected to make up their own mind. They need a clear message not a balanced piece as there is a danger they will only read half of a story before boring of it, thus missing the other half of the argument. If they don’t like what they read, they will go somewhere else where they can get what they do like. When faced with this sort of person, “Joe Public”, how realistic is it to publish a balanced piece in which the scientific viewpoint challenges general beliefs, and then expect that the reader can really make up their own mind in an informed way? Discuss.

Another much-discussed point was the differences between different  media. People may expect opinions in blogs and that’s where they go to get opinions; this is where you get communities building up that agree with each other. There may be a place (and I personally think there is) for straight reporting that gives bald facts and doesn’t try to dress it up too much; information rather than propaganda. There may also be a place for the more opinionated commentary on these facts. But it should always be made clear which is which.

For the avoidance of doubt, this blog is a representation of my opinions which I am justifying with facts where possible – if you want pure scientific facts read a journal paper, discard all the interpretation, and hope that the data is not fabricated. Pure facts are pretty hard to come by these days.