I am a director of the Association of British Science Writers.
For reasons on which we can only speculate, my modest profession has recently excited the famous Leveson Inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics of the [UK] press.”
The ABSW has decided against filing evidence to the inquiry, which has already commissioned possible guidelines on science reporting from the Science Media Centre. Instead we expect to produce a judicious, newsworthy and hard-hitting response to Leveson’s report.
However, I did draft some possible ABSW evidence for Leveson, so here it is.
It was never approved by the ABSW and is my wisdom alone. It is also a little dated. But for those of you who like this
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sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you like. I have resisted all temptation to edit it into a new form for this appearance.
The Association of British Science Writers is the membership body for science writers and related professionals in the UK.
Our 800 full, associate, student and life members produce everything from news stories to books, radio programmes and podcasts.
The ABSW was founded in 1947. Since then, science journalism has grown and become more sophisticated. For example, a number of master’s courses in the subject now provide a more formal route into the profession than before.
While some of our members are science correspondents and editors at brand-name national media, many more work on specialist publications, or as freelancers working in a variety of media and for a range of clients. In particular, changing employment patterns mean that many of them do some orthodox journalism, some work that might classically be regarded as public relations, and indeed take part in other activities such as training.
Science journalism is an international activity and the ABSW is an enthusiastic participant in the World Federation of Science Journalists. In 2009 we hosted the sixth World Conference of Science Journalists in London. This highly successful event attracted over 1000 people from around the world.
Is Science Journalism special?
No area of journalism is subject to more intense scrutiny than science journalism. Our own biennial conference is only one of many forums in which we analyse and discuss our practices and the stories they lead to.
In these discussions, a single common factor emerges. Scientists do not like much of the media coverage of their activities. They most commonly express concerns about its accuracy, including perceived sensationalism, and misleading captions and headlines.
These concerns articulate a key difference between other groups written about in the media. Politicians, entertainers, sports men and women, business executives and others appreciate that the media exist to produce material that interests their readers, viewers and listeners. Scientists often fail to grasp this point. They tend to think that the media exist to transmit their findings to a waiting world.
The BBC’s inquiry into its own science coverage is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon. Astonishingly, this inquiry was run by a distinguished scientist who has presented the BBC’s Reith Lectures. It is hard to imagine the BBC allowing an important inquiry into any other topic to be run by someone with a clear interest in the subject matter.
It may well be that science journalists do too little to help dispel this belief. Many science journalists love science, and many have science degrees. It is not unusual for a science journalist to mention their PhD on a business card or email signature, even though this is not a journalistic qualification.
One of the aims of the ABSW is to develop science journalism as a profession in its own right, rather than as a communications front-end for science.
Evidence on science journalism
Fortunately perhaps, there is a body of evidence on the efficacy of science journalism. The classic study used a natural experiment in the United States to show that research that is reported in newspapers is more likely to be cited in academic
journals. This makes the point that even professors are members of “the public” and get information from the mass media as well as from more specialised sources.
Perhaps of more interest to this inquiry is the work of Professor Brad Schaefer, now at Louisiana State University. He and colleagues carried out a survey of the coverage of astronomy in a range of media, including specialist magazines and serious and populist newspapers. It showed that the real problem is not inaccuracy, but the fact that journalism deals in “frontier” knowledge, not in certainty. Scientists find this distinction problematic to grasp. In addition, scientists are educated people who may well be uncomfortable with the vocabulary of the popular media.
Despite these issues, a major survey of scientists in Europe, Asia and North America has shown that most scientists who deal with the media find doing so a valuable and enjoyable part of their working lives.
A number of mechanisms exist for bridging the gap between scientists and the people who write about them. We approve strongly of initiatives such as the British Science Association’s media fellowships, which allow scientists to spend time in the media. Both sides learn a lot from this process. Journalists find out more about science and about how scientists think and work. Scientists gain a basic knowledge of the machinery of making a newspaper or a radio programme, such as the fact that reporters do not write captions and headlines, and come to understand the time pressure under which journalists work, a key difference between the working life of a scientist and that of a journalist. They can also find out a little about “balance,” the fact that opposing voices need to reported even if they are representing a view that will probably turn out to
be wrong. Most importantly, they allow scientists to grasp the fact that news depends on getting some new fact and making it as interesting as possible. This means that it has a different ethos from research, a protracted process in which every new scientific paper builds incrementally on what went before.
Science journalists have to cope with the fact that emerging knowledge is provisional. Some of it also turns out to be untrue. Our New York-based colleague Ivan Oransky runs a web site, RetractionWatch, dedicated to these withdrawn scientific papers. He tells us that the site has covered about 500 retractions since mid-2010.
This is a small number compared to academic publishing overall, which totals about a million papers per year, but a far larger number are the subject of a correction or amendment short of retraction. The number of papers withdrawn or altered has grown as the process of detecting fraud has been automated.
The existence of poor science is seen at its most extreme in the MMR vaccine case. The basis of this complex incident was that a researcher at one of the UK’s top medical research institutions published a paper in The Lancet, one of the world’s top medical journals. It has since turned out to be untrue. But it would certainly have been negligent for science journalists not to report this publication.
Today’s science journalists are better trained and informed than their predecessors. Early career development is a focus for the work of the ABSW and we continue to look for ways to help our members improve their skills at the beginning of, and throughout, their working lives.
Other developments have also helped to make good science journalism easier. One is the arrival of the Science Media Centre, which we know has been consulted by this inquiry. Its focus is on a small subset of science journalism, the national news media, not the wider range of science writing represented by the ABSW. However, these media are of immense importance in informing the public and setting the tone for the rest of the media. We applaud the SMC’s important role in improving the output of these media.
There is also a growing amount of science in the media, for example in dedicated TV channels, a wide range of radio programming, and the New Scientist, one of the UK’s top newsstand magazines. We would point to the launch of Eureka, a monthly print magazine about science published with The Times, as evidence of continuing editorial enthusiasm for science in the media.
Of course, the growing strength of social media is also transforming the channels through which people can find out about science. Many scientists are formidable bloggers and we welcome the way in which technology allows them to publish their own material on their own terms.
These new media are important to the ABSW for several reasons. One is that our own members use them with enthusiasm. More importantly, the proliferation of uncontrolled media emphasises the need for high-quality professionals, such as the members of the ABSW, to apply
skill and judgement to claims made by scientists and others. They are needed to produce material in which readers can have more faith than they would, for example, in a scientist’s self-generated account of his or her own work.
The spread of social media also removes the possibility of any official status or licence for journalists. It is not
possible to draw a firm line between journalism and other forms of media or publishing activity, or between being a scientist and being a science writer. We hope that the inquiry will reject in terms this retrograde and potentially repressive idea.