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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.