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Links 1 through 10 of 192 by Martin Griffiths tagged opinion

Context context context. It’s what the mainstream media’s reporting on science always lacks, isn’t it? It’s the oft-repeated line ‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that’ which media critics such as myself can grump about from the cosiness of their ivory tower. Context context context: Easy to say, but hard to provide?

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In order to present issues of risk, data, or science accurately, it is essential that media writers understand basic statistical and epidemiological principles, as well as the methods of scientific discovery. The press is most powerful when it goes beyond politics and morality to point out what science says, what it doesn't, and what it can't.

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These observations suggest that health care journalists are under pressure to excise the uncertainty inherent in scientific inquiry and medical practice from their coverage. Learning about the uncertainty is what we need but not what many of us want.

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Nowhere in the recommendations are there any measures to help or to encourage journalists to question, critique, or challenge what scientists are telling them. One group, however, will not be too concerned. The BBC’s proposals are likely to be welcomed by university PR offices. The whole point of university research communications is to ensure that a new discovery or novel finding is communicated in the media without being challenged or questioned.

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Without wanting to be morbid, I think we could be about to find out. There are some great bloggers out there dissecting science for love, not money. But relying on their continuing goodwill seems unreasonable. The mainstream media are restricted, more and more, to what the researchers themselves decide to tell us (see Margaret McCartney in the BMJ on how the media reported a recent acupuncture study).

There are plenty of ways we can improve standards of science reporting (and other reporting) in the media. But they don’t all come for free.

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We found lot of reliance on phrases such as ‘scientists have found’ and ‘experts say’. Personally I think we need to address this issue before we can even get on to matters of whether experts are the right ones or not. Although expertise may be implied through editing, and TV in particular can flag up institutional association and title, we rarely saw a contributor’s disciplinary background specified. Especially significant I thought, in broadcast reports about new research we found little explicit reference to whether or not a particular contributor was involved in the research being reported (online reports often refer to someone as ‘lead author’ or ‘co-author’). This lack of definition makes it hard for audiences to judge a contributor’s independence, whether they are speaking on a topic they have studied in depth or if they are simply working from anecdote.

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Some heavyweights are involved. The BBC, Reuters and the British Science Association among others. The Group calls for the creation of a National Coordinator for Science Journalism Training to be run by the Royal Statistical Society. And there is a push to train science press officers as well as journalists.
Many of the recommendations are of the type that I would say “about time too”.

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And this takes us to the nub of the issue: how should science be reported and recorded? How can you take a topic such as climate change, about which there is virtual unanimity of views among scientists, and keep it in the public's eye. The dangers of rising greenhouse gas emissions have dramatic implications after all. But simply reporting every tiny shrinkage in polar ice sheets or rise in sea levels will only alienate readers or viewers, a point acknowledged by May. "Newspapers, radio and TV have a duty to engage and there is no point in doing a lot of excellent reporting on a scientific issue if it is boring or trivial. The alternative is to trivialise or distort, thus subordinating substance in the name of attraction. It is a paradox for which I can see no answer."

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But the internet is undermining this pattern, which is good. Let the big journals publish their own press releases and link to the original studies. Science writers who know enough can add the context and scepticism that the publisher would probably leave out. By linking, others can alert users to new work without treating each week's big paper as "news", which was more of an artefact of the embargo system. The true import of new research will not be known for years and will not come in the form of a press release. Freed from the "paper of the week" model, science journalists have a better chance of reporting what is slowly coming into view as genuine discovery. Scientists with a gift for explanation can also get into the game.

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While journalists should indeed be alert to the statistical shenanigans of the so-called 'sceptics', it is clear that they also need to be wary of the sloppy outreach efforts of climate researchers and academic journals.

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