Scientists should do this. Journalists should do that. And eventually we will live in a world where the media reporting of science achieves perfection. At least that is the hypothesis.
The hypothesis was put to the test at the Royal Institution last night in a discussion organised by Alok Jha and chaired by Alice Bell. The speakers included Ananyo Bhattacharya and Chris Chambers, who had fired their opening salvoes on the Guardian’s web-site some weeks ago. Bhattacharya defended the rights of journalists, while Chambers initially countered that science and scientists are different and so should be accorded privileges in their dealings with reporters.
Chris Chambers wipes away a tear as Alok Jha emotes about science journalism
Before the two parties met last night, there had been some expansion and cooling of these divergent views, which took away much — though not all — of the heat of the debate. Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and Ed Yong, freelancer and blogger, injected some fresh thoughts and questions before the discussion was turned over to the audience. The whole proceedings were recorded on video and will, I hope, soon be available on the RI web-site.
I don’t wish to dwell too long on this topic. The interactions of scientists and journalists have been played and replayed too many times already. But I wanted to pick up on a couple of points.
First, science journalism in the UK has many strengths. It is by no means perfect but the very fact that scientists and journalists were prepared — again — to get together to discuss how they could help each other is testament to a certain rudeness of health.
So the gathering was healthy, but there were still a couple of emissions that disturbed my nose. The first came from Chris Chambers who proposed a ‘kite mark’, a quality stamp, for science reporting. I don’t see how such a vetting system is workable. The idea is fleshed out in more detail in Chambers’ submission (PDF) to the Leveson Inquiry. Good quality stories about a piece of research, goes the proposal, would derive from direct communication from the scientists involved, would be fact-checked by those scientists before publication, would provide a link to the original paper and — within a short period following publication — would allow the scientists to comment and respond.
There are some good elements here, in particular the need to link to the original paper (not a new idea), but overall this proposal seemed to have flown straight from cloud-cuckoo land. I agreed with Fiona Fox, who thought that journalists would look upon a kite-mark with all the relish they would have for a ‘cup of cold sick’.
During the ensuing discussion, Nicola Davis, a writer and researcher for the Times’ Eureka magazine, said that any journalist wanting to write up a science story should always read the original paper. There are some situations where this makes sense — a specialist reporter writing an in-depth article, for example — but the proposal seemed disconnected with the realities of journalists facing the pressure to file multiple stories per day. The notion may be workable for more accessible areas of science, evolutionary biology and drug trials perhaps (though see the work of Goldacre, B. on the latter topic), but discounts the conceptual difficulties of many areas of physics, chemistry and biology. Here I would rather see scientists stepping up to take greater charge of the content of press releases — and being ready to talk to journalists about their work.
There are no hard and fast rules governing interactions between scientists and journalists and no need for them. Contact is good; it will breed understanding on both sides and that in itself will enhance the accuracy of science reporting.
At the same time, the relationship should not get too cosy. The primary responsibility of good science reporters is not to science or scientists, but to their readers. Journalists need to challenge the science that they are reporting and, weirdly perhaps, I would go so far as to say that scientists need to help them do that.
And then we all went to the pub.