Charities write to Leveson

Posted on January 20, 2012 by

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AMRC have joined with the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK to send our thoughts on how science and research is covered in the press to the Leveson inquiry which is looking at the culture, practice and ethics of the press.

This recognises how brilliant a lot of science reporting is but picks 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. Quite an old example now but think what happened with MMR where a scare 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, the new cure… it may be a huge breakthrough, but a drug or treatment that can help 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 quite often the weight of mainstream scientific opinion is on one side, and this can be difficult to get across if you also want to report the controversy.

And makes a few recommendations:

a. News editors should be encouraged to seek advice from specialist
correspondents to ensure that science stories are accurately and responsibly
reported.

b. The Press Complaints Commission guidance should be strengthened to allow
any interested party to complain about inaccurate reporting. At the moment, it is not clear you can raise concerns about mis-reporting of science if you are not one of those directly named in the article – this can be a problem if say, some research about a specific condition is poorly reported, a charity with relevant expertise in that area may be concerned that the public may be  misled by the article but they are not in a position to involve the PCC should this be necessary.

c. Corrections and clarifications should be given equivalent prominence to the original article when complaints are upheld.

d. Links to additional sources of information should be included in online articles wherever possible

It also endorses the points made in the Science Media Centre’s submission to the inquiry – which is full of interesting case studies and well worth a read.

Background

The Leveson inquiry is looking at the culture practice and ethics of the press.

Within the terms of reference of the Leveson inquiry, concerns over press reporting of scientific issues can be considered.  Robert Jay QC said as he opened the inquiry:

I understand 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 matters of topical scientific interest.  It could be said that reporting which is not evidence-based is inaccurate within the meaning of the editors’ code.

Jay went on to say that:

these issues are not outside the terms of reference, and if relevant evidence is forthcoming, it will be considered.

So lots of people from across the science community have been  feeding into the inquiry.

What next?

The inquiry is ongoing. You can follow it here.

Posted in: Policy