The publication today of the Leveson report has obviously raised questions about what kind of regulation will come out of the process, and how effective it will be.
For us, it also raises a question about how a new regulator will be enabled to form judgements about issues of scientific reporting.
So as politicians debate the recommendations and their wider implications, I’ve taken a very selective look at the report, and quickly found sections which discuss or impact on the reporting of science. There are some parts which are specific to coverage of health issues, but because they’re quite specialised, I have focused on the more general sections.
This is based on a quick scan – there are likely to be other sections which have implications for science reporting.
Leveson notes early on ( p.22) that according to the Science Media Centre (SMC), which gave evidence to the inquiry, issues of scientific accuracy were de-prioritised by the Press Complaints Commission:
“As explained by Fiona Fox (Science Media Centre) misleading and inaccurate reporting of conceptual issues (such as climate change or science generally) were similarly not covered by the complaints system.”
And overall, based on the evidence submitted to the inquiry, Leveson seems to think that science reporting is a mixed bag (p.693):
“Assessing the evidence as a whole, it is clear that science reporting is generally accurate and responsible. However, the examples of inaccurate reporting identified by the various witnesses demand attention. Given the important public interest in science journalism, and the potential harm caused by overblown or sensational science reporting, greater care is needed by parts of the press prior to publishing sensational headlines of breakthroughs or scares. In addition, further consideration should be given to the need to provide balanced reporting without giving unjustified credence to minority views.”
It seems clear that Leveson has not felt it is within his remit to offer recommendations on how the press should cover science. He writes:
“The Inquiry has also received a number of submissions from organisations working in medical and scientific research setting out concerns at what they perceive as the detrimental impact of the quality and accuracy of some reporting on issues relating to science and health policy … Similar, but more controversial, concerns have been raised by organisations in relation to the reporting of issues as diverse as climate change and drug addiction. It is unnecessary to do more than touch on these: the relevant submissions are available on the Inquiry website for public scrutiny. It goes without saying that the Inquiry has not undertaken the task of forming its own expert scientific judgment on this material and, in any event, it is unnecessary that it should do so.” ( p.491)
But the report does pull out some particular issues with science reporting. On false balance in science coverage and politically-led reporting, the report says:
“False balance (or on occasion, overtly politicised reporting) was noted as a general concern in relation to other topics, including the reporting of GM crops and climate change. The Daily Express’s article ‘100 reasons why global warming is natural’ was identified as an example of where false balance, or the title’s political agenda, resulted in a misleading and inaccurate piece of science reporting.” ( p.689)
Exaggeration is also a problem in science reporting, the report suggests:
“Examples of scare stories are not limited to health journalism; the reporting of climate change is also susceptible to exaggeration. When a Nature paper modelling climate change projected warming between 2 degrees and 11 degrees, almost all the newspapers carried the latter figure in their headlines, with one tabloid splashing a huge 11 degrees on the front page alongside an apocalyptic image. This was in spite of the fact that the press briefing to launch the paper had all emphasised that the vast majority of models showed warming around 2 degrees. The impact of these kinds of scare stories can be twofold: first they can create unnecessary public anxiety, and (as in the case of the MMR scandal) have a consequently detrimental impact on public health; and second, they can have a “cry wolf” effect, reducing trust in science reporting generally.” ( p.691)
The sections which discuss science coverage reference the Science Media Centre heavily. What may becomes important is that Leveson concludes any future regulator should take note of a set of guidelines the SMC submitted to the inquiry on how newspapers should produce science reporting:
- State the source of the story – e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
- Specify the size and nature of the study – e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
- When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
- Give a sense of the stage of the research – e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
- On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – i.e. if ‘cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
- Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
- If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
- Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
- Remember patients” don’t call something a ‘cure’ that is not a cure.
- Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.
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