The Leveson inquiry, looking at the culture, practice and ethics of the press which reported last week, included some interesting stuff on coverage of science by the media. The report includes a section on Medical and Scientific Research (3.29 in volume II) in response to submissions from the scientific community – including AMRC – about the coverage of science and health stories:
This body of evidence emphasises the need for balanced and responsible reporting on matters of public interest and, in particular, reporting that reflects the balance of scientific and/or medical opinion on any specific issue…
…As the MMR story made clear, the failure to do so can have a widespread and harmful impact.
And in Science Reporting at 9.57-9.75, the report endorses a set of guidelines for newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate, which were developed by a group of scientists, science reporters, editors and subeditors brought together by the Science Media Centre.
9.75 At the end of her evidence I invited Ms Fox to provide some draft guidelines for science journalism which, if followed, would reduce the risk of the press printing the type of story that has received critical comment. Ms Fox has responded to that request and has produced guidelines which in my view are commendable for their utility as well as their succinctness. Any new regulator should bear them closely in mind.
You can read more from Fiona Fox on her experiences of the inquiry and next steps in the Guardian here.
AMRC submitted evidence to the inquiry jointly with the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK. In particular we raised how brilliant a lot of science reporting is but picked out some of the difficulties associated with reporting complicated, and developing science stories:
Scare stories – scares about matters of public health which are not well grounded in science have the potential to cause great damage. MMR is a good example of this, where a concern over the vaccine which was not broadly supported by scientists led to low-take up of measles vaccinations.
Hype and false hope – when we hear about the latest breakthrough or news of a potential new cure for a condition, it may be a huge breakthrough from a scientific perspective, but a drug or treatment that will benefit people may still be a long way off. These qualifications can be lost in the excitement, risking giving patients false hope.
False controversy – it is often difficult to show the balance of opinion when talking about science. Quite often there is debate over findings which is interesting to report, but where the weight of mainstream scientific opinion is on one side, this can be difficult to get across if you also want to report the controversy.
You can read more details of our response here.
The Science Media Centre also submitted detailed evidence which we supported and Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre, gave evidence to the inquiry.
Guidelines for newsrooms on reporting science and health stories
At the request of Leveson, guidelines were developed by a group of scientists, science reporters, editors and subeditors, brought together by the Science Media Centre. Leveson commended the guidelines for their utility as well as their succinctness and suggested that any new regulator should bear them closely in mind:
Guidelines submitted to the Leveson inquiry
The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and subeditors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate. They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs ["news in brief" items] will not be able to cover every point. Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicalities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents. Wherever possible, the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works.
- State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
- Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
- When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
- Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time frame for any new treatment or technology.
- On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – ie if “cupcakes double cancer risk” state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
- Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
- If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
- Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
- Remember patients: don’t call something a “cure” that is not a cure.
- Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.
How the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry will be taken forward is still being debated but these guidelines on the reporting of health and science stories are a good resource available for anybody talking and writing about science to bear in mind.