NA IMPRENSA INTERNACIONAL >
Science journalism through the looking glass
A recent journalism conference highlighted the changing landscape of science reporting and the need for scientists to engage proactively with the media.
On 25 June the Royal Society hosted the second UK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ), a provocative meeting that addressed a wide range of issues. As scientists attending the event, three questions struck us as especially important.
First, should science journalists focus on explaining science or on exposing misconduct? Second, should the Leveson inquiry leave journalism to regulate itself or has the press already failed that crucial test? And finally, could a kitemark provide a trust meter to help readers distinguish quality science reporting from churnalism and fiction?
Are science journalists the 'revealers of the rotten'?
In the technical manual Ten Ways to Enrage a Science Journalist, step one advises: "Label him/her as a science 'communicator'. To incur extra wrath, recommend cheerleading."
Alas such a guide doesn't exist (yet), but in a lively session, Connie St Louis, Evan Davis, William Cullerne Bown, Jay Rosen, and Alok Jha considered whether it is OK for journalists be "explainers" of science who illuminate new discoveries, or whether real journalists are always "exposers" who challenge scientists and uncover wrongdoing. As Rosen put it, should science journalists be the "revealers of the rotten" in pursuit of heroic takedowns, or should they embrace steadier virtues? Are "explainers" second-class journalists?
As scientists we were puzzled by the implication that explaining and exposing are incompatible activities. Journalism as a whole must surely achieve both, just as science should expose flaws in existing theories while also explaining new data to peers, students, and the public.
We can already see how individual science journalists combine explaining and exposing. Science writer Ed Yong, who won a prestigious award at UKCSJ, is well known for publishing explanatory pieces alongside investigative exposés. St Louis, however, lamented the lack of investigative journalism to root out scientific fraud. Given the complexities of such frauds, unmasking them poses an ominous challenge for journalists, though it is clearly not impossible.
A perhaps broader reason to adopt a more critical mindset is to combat the rise in self-censorship. Andy Williams has shown that as scientists become more politically organised, they can quell debate among their own ranks in an attempt to present a united front.
We ourselves have fallen into this trap. Last year we argued that academic peer review protects against the publication of bad science, providing a reason why science should be seen differently to other areas of journalism (in which the journalists themselves act as reviewers). What we didn't say is that peer review is like democracy. Everyone agrees it is essential, and nobody has come up with a better system, but it is an unquestionably flawed, frustrating, and inconsistent approach for triaging science. Acknowledging these flaws would have distracted from our argument, so we censored ourselves in the interests of making a point. But this strategy backfired and attracted justified criticism.
Who watches the watchers?
If journalists are the guardians of accountability then who guards the guardians? This question featured prominently in a panel that included Fiona Fox, David Derbyshire, Bob Satchwell, and James Randerson. Opinions varied: although none of the panel advocated statutory regulation of the press, Fox articulated a clear case for independent regulation. Satchwell, on the other hand, maintained that self-regulation is adequate and vital for safeguarding free speech.
Scientists celebrate free speech as much as anyone. But for us, the single most important requirement of journalism is accuracy. No amount of contextualising, synthesising, or investigating can compensate for errors of fact. In this respect, self-regulation has done little to improve news quality, failing dismally to prevent phone hacking, churnalism, and the inexorable rise of misleading health reporting. As noted by Evan Davis, this failure can be explained by a pervasive groupthink that reinforces existing practices at the expense of rational alternatives.
Arguments for self-regulation also fall prey to an obvious double standard. Clearly, every community would prefer to self-regulate. Scientists, for example, often claim that scientists are best positioned to set funding priorities and to challenge bad science or fraud. At the same time, journalists argue that science needs a watchful eye to challenge practices that are ignored or downplayed from within. So why should this argument not apply equally to journalism?
Rather than trying to revive the corpse of self-regulation, we would do better to ensure press accountability through an independent public jury that is free from the grip of editors, media executives and political influences. Combined with all-important libel reform, independent regulation provides the best and only answer to keeping speech as free, responsible, and intelligent as possible.
A badge of excellence for science journalism
Talk of press regulation foreshadows punishment, yet there is rarely talk of positive incentives for good journalism. This is why, in our submission to the Leveson inquiry, we proposed a kitemark that would enable readers to distinguish the type of journalism that everyone admires from churnalism and science fiction.
Our original kitemark included four standards: that the article takes steps to ensure accuracy; that it follows an interview with the scientist who did the research; that it includes a link to the peer reviewed article and press release upon which the story is based; and that it enables online comments from the scientist to appear alongside the story. Importantly, we do not recommend copy checking as standard practice, although we agree with Evan Davis and Jay Rosen that doing so can be sensible and certainly not a hanging offence.
At UKCSJ we learned that our proposal was flagged for public discussion by the former Daily Mail journalist, David Derbyshire. Even though Derbyshire broadly disagreed with our idea, several journalists responded positively off the record.
Derbyshire is right that our kitemark is naive in some respects. For example, the idea of standardised fact checking is probably not feasible, nor would it be necessary in all cases. And the sheer volume of science news would make it impossible for a governing body like the Press Complaints Commission to manage a kitemarking system. So, perhaps editors of news outlets could be persuaded to adopt the system voluntarily – after all, if you are publishing excellent science news then why not shout about it? Outlets that refuse to engage would immediately stand out. They would be effectively shouting to their readership: "Don't trust us!"
No doubt our proposal could be improved. Rather than requiring fact checking, the kitemark could depend on stories including comments from an independent scientist. And we endorse the suggestion made at UKCSJ that journals should provide full and immediate open access for any research articles named in a press release.
The kitemark is an evolving idea. At its core, it would allow readers to discern the trustworthiness of a particular news story or outlet, while also showcasing the kind of science reporting that is celebrated by everyone: factually correct stories that synthesise, challenge and contextualise science rather than distorting it, churnalising it, or acting as a conduit for PR.
Final boarding call
We recently argued that scientists can help improve science journalism by reaching out, engaging with journalists and demolishing the ivory tower. Yet less than 6% of the delegates at UKCSJ were scientists, and the Leveson inquiry has seen few submissions from academia. This disconnect is troubling, especially at a time when the face of journalism is changing forever. If science wants to have a place at the table then scientists need to attend this important conference and help shape future media policy.
[Dr Chris Chambers and Dr Petroc Sumner are at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University]