Does the Media need Facts to Create a "Good" Story?

By Michael Edmonds 24/03/2011

A common criticism of the media’s reporting of science is that facts are often exaggerated, misrepresented or ignored. However, the recent reports of an “incident” involving politician Darren Hughes show another technique of some sections of the media – when there are limited facts available, the gaps can be filled in by opinion and innuendo.

At the point of writing this blog the only facts released to the public are that an 18 year old male has made a complaint of a sexual nature against Mr Hughes, Labour’s education spokesman and chief whip. Mr Hughes has claimed that he has done nothing wrong and is waiting for the outcome of a police inquiry into the alleged incident.

However, it is said that nature abhors a vacuum. So, it appears, does the media who are filling the gaps with supposition and innuendo. Already on is a poll asking if Mr Hughes career will survive the allegations against him? Given that no one seems to know what the allegations are, this question seems a little premature. A similar question was also asked by Petra Bagust this morning on TV one’s breakfast show.

At this point in time there is no evidence available to show whether the alleged incident was a simple misunderstanding, a serious abuse of power, or something in between. Yet some media are attempting to “fill in the gaps” by any means necessary, for example a “source close to the complainant says he is bearing up well.”

Some may question why I am posting a story about politics on a science blog, however, I see this story as a lesson on how some sections of the media operate. If we do not provide them with enough facts the gaps will be filled in with something else – implication, quotes from “experts” or pure speculation.