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Archive December 2011

Suggestions for better science journalism Peter Griffin Dec 09

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The Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and media standards in the United Kingdom rolls on as a parade of media experts and journalists outline what’s wrong with the media and how the newsgathering process could be improved.

QC Brian Leveson

QC Brian Leveson

My colleagues at the Science Media Centre in London, which celebrates its 10th birthday next April, have used the Inquiry’s submissions process to point out what is wrong in particular with science journalism – and offer some useful suggestions on how the quality of coverage could be improved.

The UK has seen its fair share of dodgy science reporting – most notably the media’s coverage of the infamous Andrew Wakefield MMR-autism paper back in 1998, which actually threatened public health by causing a dip in vaccination rates. From the SMC submission:

Vaccination rates before the story stood at about 92% but dropped down to 80% after the scare, and it has taken close to 15 years to get over the damage. Cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008.

The real balance of this debate was completely lost because editors demanded that every comment from an expert be ‘balanced’ by a quote from Wakefield’s supporters. This issue has impacted on many other important science stories including climate change, GM crops, etc. where the fact that the weight of scientific evidence lies firmly on one side has often been obscured by an obsession with including ‘both sides’ of the story

The quest for balance often sees science stories go off the rails here too.

And reading through the 12-page submission penned by SMC UK director, Fiona Fox, it is uncanny just how much of it rings true for the New Zealand setting. We face the exact same barriers, including inaccurate headlines, lack of context on the significance of research findings, the aforementioned obsession with providing “balance” even when the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on one side, the influence of campaigning newspapers and mis-informed columnists and the way editors ignore the advice of their specialist reporters.

Actually, on that last issue, the UK and New Zealand diverge. We don’t have any specialist science reporters, which sort of compounds all the other problems listed in the SMC UK’s catalogue of media woes.

Take the case this week of Herald lifestyle columnist Shelley Bridgeman, who decided to delve into the world of conspiracy theories around chem trails but appears to have limited her research to conspiracy websites and Wikipedia articles. Only in the last paragraph does she refer to any expert opinion and then, only in passing:

Are chemtrails real? Some say they are but scientists claim they’re just regular vapour trails prolonged by certain atmospheric conditions.

This sort of vacuous pontificating may rack up plenty of reader comments (witness the savaging Bridgeman gets in the responses to her column), but it ultimately doesn’t do anything for the public’s understanding of science-related issues. Too often, columnists are let loose to issue their opinions with scant regard for facts. As the SMC UK puts it:

…we think it is healthy for opinionated columnists to challenge science and scientists in vigorous terms but we feel that they should not be free from the general expectations of truth telling and accuracy that govern the rest of journalism.

The UK, despite a steady stream of inaccurate and sensationalist science stories, remains a bastion of decent science reporting because the science round is, by and large, well resourced. As Fiona Fox notes:

Many newspapers employ dedicated science, health and environment reporters. And this is not just the broadsheets. The Sun has a health editor and an environment editor. The Mirror has a science editor as well as a health editor, and the Daily Mail has four dedicated specialists covering science, health and environment. These specialists are a dedicated and skilful group of journalists that the UK should be proud of.

In New Zealand, the trend it toward general reporters covering science and the idea of a “science editor” at a media organisation is a foreign concept. The Leveson Inquiry is a great opportunity for the British media to reflect on past performance and change its ways for the better. Here’s the full list of recommendations from the UK SMC when it comes to the treatment of science coverage:

SMC UK recommendations to Leveson Inquiry:

- New guidelines for the reporting of science — these guidelines would be drawn up by science journalists and used primarily by news editors and general reporters. They could also be used by a newly strengthened PCC to help adjudicate on complaints;
- Encourage newspapers to appoint at least one news editor and sub editor with a background in science reporting;
- Encourage newspapers to ensure that all science stories are checked by specialist science reporters and that news editors defer to their specialists’ judgment on the quality or otherwise of science stories;
- Headlines on important public health stories should be agreed by the relevant science reporter;
- Basic science training should be offered as a matter of course as part of the overall training of journalists;
- Scientists and organisations representing them who have been misrepresented should have a right to reply;
- Corrections of serious inaccuracies should be as prominent as the original story, including in how they are promoted (e.g. via social media);
- The PCC must immediately change the rule that states that only an individual scientist can complain about an inaccurate story. The scientific community must be able to make complaints about inaccurate articles which damage the public interest.

Dumped dogs not a good look for vivisectionists Peter Griffin Dec 06

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UPDATE: Campbell Live producer Kim Hurring has been in touch to say that the the original beagle piece run by TV3 was in the works well before the news out of Spain and that the fact the two stories broke on the same day was “purely coincidental”.

“We had had a team of about three people working on it for four days.. not to mention a lawyer going through it meticulously,” she said.

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It started with a tear jerking video that went viral on the web – footage of beagles who had never seen the outside of a research lab gingerly taking their first steps on grass.

A dog's skeleton discovered behind a VARC facility. Source: 3 News

A dog's skeleton discovered behind a VARC facility. Source: 3 News

The video, filmed in the US back in June and released by the Beagle Freedom Project suddenly took off again a couple of weeks ago after media interest in the release of dozens of beagles from a lab in Spain that was about to go out of business. The beagles ended up in Los Angeles, with the Beagle Freedom Project setting out to find foster homes for the cute, floppy-eared beagles, some of whom bear the scars of experiments.

The New Zealand media quickly took an interest – with the beagle video – despite being nearly six months old, featuring on the front of the Stuff website for part of an afternoon last week. Then Tv3 took an interest, looking for a local angle on the story that had racked up so many views elsewhere in the world.

Campbell Live’s Natasha Utting didn’t have to go far to get her homegrown news hook. The controversial Valley Animal Research Centre has featured in 3 News reports before. Now defunct, the centre operated for years as a centre for end-stage drug and food testing on animals. The anti-vivisectionists, fundamentally opposed to the testing, honed in on VARC, claiming mistreatment of and poor conditions for the test animals.

Animal testing has a fairly low profile in New Zealand though around 240,000 animals were used in testing last year. The bulk of those will be rats and mice and even fish, over which few tears seem to be shed. The beagles, chosen for their placid nature and lack of genetically-acquired health problems are a different story entirely – there’s no doubt the videos of them stepping into freedom for the first time are heartbreaking.

But animal testing is a necessarily unsentimental and clinical line of work that is incredibly important to modern medicine. No one is better at articulating its virtues than John Forman, the tireless force behind the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders. In many cases, the only hope of eradicating the types of disorders affecting the organisation’s members is advances in human medicine that rely in part on experiments with animals.

I think most of society, when pointed out how animal testing underpins the advances in medicine and even food testing that have improved the lives of millions, would accept the validity of its use. What people will not accept however, is animals being kept in poor conditions, being the subject of unethical treatment and being kept in captivity longer than they need to be.

Campbell Live reported last week that former VARC director Margaret Harkima was selling beagles on Trade Me without disclosing their past lives as animal testing subjects.

Last night it got worse. Footage of Natasha Utting and an anonymous dog breeder uncovering the dead bodies of dumped beagle pups and the skeleton of a dog, discarded amid piles of trash behind the VARC facility, was shocking.

The dialogue went something like this as the dog breeder opened a rancid trash bag:

Dog breeder: I’m pretty sure that’s a dog. A puppy.

Utting: Are they organs?

Dog breeder: To me that looks like puppies.

Utting and Campbell Live did a good job on this story, literally digging out an exclusive.

The animal testing may be over at VARC – a notebook discovered in the trash pile showed records of testing ending back in 2009. But dogs and cats, inexplicably remain at the facility and the careless disposal of the dead dogs, while not an animal ethics issue as such, doesn’t help the case of animal testers who claim to treat animals with respect and dignity.

Who knows why Margaret Harkima is holding onto these animals – she certainly wouldn’t explain her actions to Utting. While the beagles may live in conditions that meet the standards policed by animal welfare inspectors, the VARC facility is clearly run down. Harkima should take up the offer from animal welfare organisation Huha, and have the dogs taken off her hands and given to familes who can show them a good life.

Getting all weepy-eyed over the footage of the newly freed beagles is understandable, but is manipulation by the activists who campaign for the freedom of these dogs. The shoddy treatment of dogs in New Zealand that have been the subject of testing and the inappropriate disposal of animals is on the other hand an issue that taints animal testing and by association reflects badly on the researchers and scientists who operate ethically with society’s best interests at heart. The sooner VARC is totally wound down and the dogs placed with new owners the better.

The Beagle Freedom Project video that has attracted 2.8 million hits on Youtube

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