I love Twitter. About a month ago I clicked on a tweet to discover this: www.badscience.net/2009/07/steve-connor-is-getting-eggy/
In brief: A month ago a mud-slinging match started between Steve Connor, science editor at the Indy, and Ben Goldacre. On his blog, badscience.net, Goldacre wrote: “mainstream media's science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly.” Connor responded in an Indy column saying critics did not understand the time and money constraints of the mainstream media. He tells me at the Indy the past year has seen a 30 percent cut in newspaper income and a third of journalists have lost their jobs because of the recession.
It’s true some health stories are misleading and this is an extremely serious business. A well-publicised case wrongly linked MMR and autism, the product of decades’ tangled mess of analysis and reporting by lifestyle and other non-specialist journalists based on the work of a scientist with a ton of vested interests (Andrew Wakefield). Throw in a dash of hysteria via lobby groups of concerned parents and it becomes the most vexed issue of science journalism to date. Serious business, as increasing numbers of children are contracting measles and mumps. Read more here.
Alok Jha, science correspondent at the Guardian, thinks that in his chapter on MMR in Bad Science, Goldacre makes a mistake lumping science journalists with lifestyle journalists that misinterpreted the scientific evidence. Jha says:
“I think Ben’s a bit disingenuous, because he writes ‘science journalist’, and then when you read what he writes he doesn’t talk about science journalists. That’s a slight issue, and he’s admitted that, but I think he uses it so that it’s polemic. So, I don’t use his arguments massively seriously.”
Rowan Hooper, news editor at Newscientist.com, says: “Bad science [journalism] can damage your health – but remember – so can bad doctors. If anyone knows a doctor who is good at analysing statistics, perhaps one who is also a good writer, we might ask him to try and assess the deaths that can be attributed to poor science reporting and those attributable to poor medical practice.”
Enough of this verbal sparring, boys – the biggest problem facing science journalism’s credibility is churnalism, the “cut and paste” recycling of press agency and PR copy into stories. Hooper says: "You might not have taken the trouble to verify things with independent experts and the danger is you have taken them at their word when it may well require extra reporting." This can result in inaccuracies and “loony claims about cancer”, for example. In Nick Davies’ book, Flat Earth News, he blames pharma PR-led stories on fabricated disorders, such as female sexual dysfunction (my example) or “social anxiety disorder – otherwise known as shyness”.
However, despite errors and bloopers by editors and journalists that encourage a skepticism towards science journalism – which might be dangerous if readers ignore stories when they do provide vital and accurate information – I’d argue science journalism is not a completely “broken” profession.
MSM’s treatment of stem cell research is something that Jha states as an example of “critical friend” science journalism done good: “Members of the science journalism community took the issue on board and analysed the effects and talked to audiences about why this is important.” The result: new legislation passed through government to allow the creation of hybrid embryos, for example, and therefore possible future advances to public health.
Also, MMR might actually have had, in some ways, a positive influence on subsequent health coverage in the media, for example SARS, or depending on which camp you sit in H1N1 (some good and informative, some shown to be overblown in the context of ordinary flu stats). There does seem to me to be an air of not wanting to fuck up in the same way again. Ever. Jha puts that down to newspaper editors realising that they need people on their staff that can be responsible to sort out complex issues.
Jha says he doesn’t know many scientists in UK who complain about science coverage – bar one or two. Evidence for this is a paper published in Science by a UCL researcher (Steve Miller) who interviewed 1,000 stem cell scientists to see what they felt about stem cell coverage in the media, and virtually all of them were happy with it.