Sunday 13 June 2010

Journalists and the "scientific breakthrough"

There has been some animated discussion about science journalism by journalists and bloggers relating to the Fish Oil story that featured in my 1st June blog on the Orwellian prize. In summary, Ben Goldacre wrote a piece criticising the lax journalism behind the story, and was then roundly criticised himself by Jeremy Laurance of the Independent, who felt Ben was going too far in attacking hard-pressed journalists. There is a good piece by Ed Yong that gives the background and offers a cogent analysis. Here I don't want to rehearse the arguments – I've already added a comment to Yong's blog underlining my support for Ben Goldacre. Instead I have a constructive suggestion from a scientist to science journalists about how they might do things differently when handling science stories. This is prompted by my experiences when attending meetings of the British Science Festival. The British Science Association, which runs the festival, has a distinguished track record: founded in 1831 as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, its meetings included highlights such the first use of the term 'dinosaur' (1841), the debate on Darwinism between Huxley and Wilberforce (1860), Joule’s experiments (1840s) and the first demonstration of wireless transmission (1894). Times, however, have changed. Science has become increasingly specialised. The British Science Festival plays a key role in fulfilling the stated goals of the Association: "connecting science with people: promoting openness about science in society and affirming science as a prime cultural force through engaging and inspiring adults and young people directly with science and technology, and their implications". It is, however, not a venue where scientists reveal to the world a hitherto unreported "breakthrough". In general, the material that is reported at the Festival will either be already published in specialist journals, or will be "work in progress". In fact, most scientists find the whole concept of the "breakthrough" suspect: most research proceeds incrementally rather than by a sudden leap forward. The media, however, don't seem to grasp this essential point. They descend on the meeting in droves where they summon presenters to press conferences based on the one-paragraph press releases that the scientists are encouraged to supply. They don't attend the lectures. If my experience is anything to go by, they focus on at most 5% of the presentations, selecting those that they judge will make a good story of interest to the general public. Then during the week of the Festival, there is a plethora of newspaper articles which report on the selected presentations, inevitably talking about them as if the work is entirely new. Scientists then get uncomfortable as they feel their research has been "talked up" to make it into a newsworthy "breakthrough". The following week, the newspaper coverage of science reverts to its previous low level. Now, while I can understand some of the reasons for this, it seems to me a terrific waste of an opportunity. Gathered at the Festival is a subset of Britain's scientific elite, selected in large measure because they are doing interesting research and can communicate their science to a general audience. (Inevitably there are some who are hopeless at doing this and misunderstand the nature of the audience, but they are a minority). Their work doesn't stop when the Festival comes to an end. They will return to their labs and continue doing the interesting research. So if I were a science journalist, I would go to the Festival not to frenetically write stories to be published that week, but to make contacts with researchers who could supply me with good science stories for the rest of the year. I'm sure most journalists don't have time to tour the country interviewing scientists, but if they could make a personal contact with a scientist and persuade them they want to write a serious piece, they would find most would be amenable to a future telephone interview. And instead of having to respond rapidly to a press release, journalists could take a more relaxed approach, which would reduce their stress levels and give them time to check things carefully. I suspect that many journalists will reply to say this is all very well, but it's not news and so editors would not stand for it. Their job is not to provide the public with a general science education, but to tell people about breakthroughs. I disagree. There is far too much science for any one person to grasp, and so most scientific research will be novel to the majority of readers. The difficulty is to explain what is often technical and complex material to a lay readership. We have some excellent science journalists who are good at doing exactly that. If they could build up a network of relationships with scientists, they'd find a great many fascinating stories out there that are currently appreciated by only a minority of specialists.


  1. I once judged a poster competition for PhD students at the BSA Festival of Science and was disturbed to learn that the students were explicitly told not to include any data or graphs on their posters - this puts people off and they don't understand it anyway. Perhaps, but I think we're underestimating the science-interested public. This also seems to promote the 'trust me, I'm a scientist' mantra that isn't terribly helpful. Engaging the public with scientific issues doesn't mean reporting a breakthrough in media friendly sound bites, but encouraging debate and evaluating evidence. This makes for a far more interesting story!

  2. Mmm, I agree that science journalists can always work to make better connections with scientists, but I'd also say that the leading sci journalists in this country do already do that. Maybe they should do more. There are lots of ways in which the PR machines around science, whilst connecting science and journalists in some very useful ways also oddly act as a barrier against the formation of stronger relationships (e.g. "find an expert guides").

    I should also note there are a range of projects that try to do what you are proposing already - the annual scientists and press drinks party, media fellowships (that isn't so say there shouldn't be more, but this is something the sci com'n community are on to). It's also a point that is going in a document on sci com'n training I'm drafting for the BSA at the moment.

    However, be careful of focusing too much on the media as a channel for communication. The BSA also do a lot of engagement work, including at the Festival, which aims to bring scientists directly to publics without the need for journalists. There are massive problems with this too, but there are also good things, and although it's less flashy and obviously going on than the news media, if you want to talk about science communicaiton you really can't ignore that it goes on.

    Also re: your comment on Ed's post, specifically when you say “People believe what they read in newspapers, and act on it”. This is a hard thing to measure empirically, but the evidence-base says “ish” to that one (see the "Towards a Better Map report, or about any piece of empirical media studies of the last 20 years). If you are really that worried about science in public, there are other places you need to focus your attention than journalism.

  3. In some ways engaging with the news media has damaged science, because many newspaper readers look upon science stories as potential life-style guides - especially when the stories relate to health or diet. Many people who are not scientifically trained (i.e. the majority) do not recognise that tentative nature of most published scientific research and the caveats that accompany it, which tend to be ignored by many journalists because of their need to simplify. When newspaper readers looking for life style assurances are told by one source that red wine might be good for the circulatory system and, soon afterwards, by another that it's harmful to other bodily functions, they'll soon decide that all this apparently contradictory information is useless to them, lose interest and simply enjoy drinking it, whatever the consequences. Throw into the mix the suspicion that many of correlative studies in health, agriculture and food science, that tell little about cause and effect, might be influenced by funders who have a vested interest in the outcome and it soon becomes apparent that the drip, drip, drip reporting of so many tentative studies of research in progress that need to be sensationalised to catch the reader's eye undermine public confidence in science as a source of information that's of any direct value to them. Every university now has a media centre that pumps this stuff out to journalists, desperate to give their institution a high profile in the public eye, so the situation can only get worse, encourgaed by competitive aspirations for 'impact' (measured in column inches), driven by the new parameters set by the RAE.

  4. 'The media, however, don't seem to grasp this essential point. They descend on the meeting in droves where they summon presenters to press conferences based on the one-paragraph press releases that the scientists are encouraged to supply.' This is nonsense and one perhaps for the Orwellian award. The media don't summon scientists to press conferences. A scientist's funding institute or university should have been involved in preparing a news release on his or her behalf.
    Charities are keen on coverage - because it increases exposure of their work & therefore funding which ultimately they can then direct to support further research. Generally speaking, newspapers are there to make money. Remember, journalists themselves talk about 'stories'. It is good when they get it right, but don't expect it. A good PR officer should be able to guide scientists through this process and ensure that what appears is fair, if nothing else. Many scientists learn to enjoy this process, knowing that most coverage most of the time is fine. However, I have seen scientists talk to journalists when they don't know the context, when or what their comments will appear in and who else the reporter is talking to (a good guide to a possible 'news' angle). Just because a reporter calls a particular scientist does not mean that this individual is the right person to answer the questions. Finally, like it or not, there are plenty of scientists happy to talk up their work to the media. It's not all one-way traffic.