Monday, 30 July 2007

Embargoes, helping or hindering good science journalism?

There has been much discussion in various fora about David Whitehouse's provocative tirade against the embargo system. Many of the reactions defending the embargo system I agree with, but there were a couple of points I wanted to add to what's already been said.

Firstly I would like to point out that the discussion about whether embargoes protect or prevent good science journalism slightly misses the point about embargoes - that they are the property of science press officers. Journalists can engage in all the discussion they like about the embargo system, but the truth is that it is likely to continue because embargoes are one way that science press officers can have some control over the stories we give to the media. If we want the story to be seen or heard by policy makers we can slap on a midnight embargo to make sure MPs wake up to it on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and in the morning papers. If it's a story that we would prefer to reach the general public, we can embargo it to get on the main BBC and ITN TV news. The embargo is something that press officers use to help us do our jobs – to get the best possible coverage for our institutions' work.

And let's face it guys, the embargo is about the only thing we do have control over. Even with the best media management in the business we have no control over what journalists do with our stories. There was a salutary reminder of this at the Science Media Centre (SMC) this week. Having successfully persuaded the Home Office to get on the front foot by issuing their annual animal research statistics at an SMC media briefing (rather than the old policy of sticking the data on their website and waiting for the anti-animal-research groups to give the story to their favourite journalists), we woke up with horror to see that half the press led with Ed Balls' (Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) father attacking the rise in animal research. Not that I was counting or anything, but our mates at The Guardian gave the previously unheard-of Prof Balls the headline, lead paragraph and six paragraphs to attack the rise in animal research compared with only three for the contents of the briefing itself. But hey, that happens all the time, and not just in science – read any spin-doctor's diary.

Of course that doesn't mean that we should abuse the embargo system and I accept that there has to be a good reason to embargo a story as well as some rationale for the timing. When the SMC embargoed a media briefing on clinical trials after the Parexel disaster for the Sunday papers, we were rightly ridiculed by the dailies for slapping an artificial embargo on an ongoing public health story. But in most other cases the objections from journalists tend to relate to whether or not the embargo time suits them. I love the Today programme dearly but when producers occasionally do that "do you know who we are" thing I now take a perverse pleasure in telling them that I do indeed know who they are but that this time we're trying to reach 8 year olds so the embargo is geared around Newsround! As I have said before in this blog, no matter how much we go out drinking with journalists, there will come a time where the fact that they are journalists and we are press officers will put us at loggerheads – and in my experience that tension almost always comes to light over embargoes.

My only other reaction to David Whitehouse's polemic is to ridicule the notion that the embargo system is somehow preventing hoards of intrepid investigative science journalists from digging out original stories. Quite frankly I find that ludicrous. Science stories do not only appear in embargoed journals or press briefings. There are beautiful science stories blooming in every scientific institution in the country just waiting for some science reporter to pluck. After spending a day with scientists at IGER (the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research) in Aberystwyth two years ago, I told at least 10 journalists that they should pay a visit because there were some great stories to be found. Not one took me up on the idea, but when I persuaded an IGER scientist to come to London to sit on our panel on "farming and climate change" last week, every journalist went crazy over the wonderful story of modifying grass to reduce the methane being belched into the atmosphere by cows. It wasn't the embargo system that had prevented journalists getting this story, it was the long slow train line to Aberystwyth. And if embargoes do thwart journalists from getting their own science stories, how come so many of our science journalists do just that? How come Mark Henderson has broken so many of the cutting edge fertility stories that have graced the front pages of The Times? How come Rachael Buchanan and Fergus Walsh have got so many exclusives on the BBC 10 O'clock news? Did they break any embargoes? No, they pursued stories and kept in touch with scientists.

It is kind of Whitehouse to argue that the embargo system discriminates against Sunday papers, but the best Sunday journalists are not complaining. Robin McKie, science editor of the Observer, has been taking pot-luck on finding a story at the institutions he visits almost every Tuesday and Wednesday. On trips organised by press officers like Sheila Anderson at NERC (Natural Environment Research Council), he meets scientists, takes time to discuss their research and almost always finds his story for that Sunday's paper. Far from whinging about being cruelly denied stories from the journals, McKie tells me he feels liberated from the pressures that his colleagues on the dailies face and says it's a privilege to have the time and space to meet amazing scientists and dig out stories that no one else has. Likewise his colleague on the health side, Jo Revill, has won more awards for her journalism that we've had hot dinners – and in five years I've never heard her complain about being excluded from the embargo system.

So I'm afraid I find little to agree with in Whitehouse's article and indeed his starting point – that the embargo system produces shoddy journalism –simply does not ring true.

I want to give the last word to my friend Geoff Watts, a long serving BBC health and science reporter, whose witty reaction to David Whitehouse's article neatly sums the majority view; that embargoing journal stories almost certainly improves the quality of science reporting and we remove it at our peril:

"What a splendid idea! Drop all the barriers, get shot of this fuddy-duddy idea about having five minutes thought before we burst into speech and print. Then science too can reap all the so-evident benefits of more general 24 hour news: such as raising the quotient of speculation to established fact; and such as getting the first available "expert" to comment rather than the best one."

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Why we need the best journalism on public health stories

My favourite bit of Sunday is when I finally get to sneak away to a quiet corner of our house and settle down to read my Observer. Last week however it ended up being the unsettling bit of my weekend. When I saw the headline I had to check that I hadn't picked up the Mail on Sunday by mistake – but there it was under the Observer masthead: "New health fears over big surge in autism. Questions over triple jab for children". This front page splash linking a rise in autism with the joint Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine coincided with a two page exclusive interview on the inside pages with Dr Andrew Wakefield, architect of the MMR scare, who is due before the General Medical Council (GMC) Fitness to Practise Panel this week to face charges of misconduct in relation to his research on MMR.

"This had better be good", I thought as I hungrily devoured the piece.

The article was based on a leak of unpublished research into the rising levels of autism. The top line was that as many as one in 58 children may have some form of the condition - much higher than the current highest estimate of one in 100.

You would think that was already a shocking enough story – but then in paragraph three the reason for the headline becomes clear. Apparently two of the seven researchers privately believe that the rise may be connected to the MMR vaccine. The claim is elaborated on in the fourth paragraph where the two researchers are named as Dr Carol Stott and Dr Fiona Scott. Though the paper made it clear that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, leader of the research group and one of Europe's most respected autism experts, does not accept the link, alarmingly almost ten years after Andrew Wakefield sparked off a frenzied debate over a link between MMR and autism, the Observer's front page was suggesting that there is still a serious dispute amongst leading experts as to whether he was right. Predictably several papers repeated the MMR allegations the next day and countless columnists, including James Le Fanu and Peter Hitchins have cited the Observer piece as evidence that the MMR autism row is still alive and well.

One of the challenges for the Science Media Centre (SMC) was what to do about it. We were set up in the wake of media furores over issues like MMR and we know that poor journalism on public health is our territory. However we also know that the SMC philosophy (the media will 'do' science better when scientists 'do' media better) was a reaction against the culture of complaint within science which often saw top scientists complaining privately about coverage rather than pro-actively engaging with the story.

With this in mind, the SMC reacted to the article primarily by coordinating a joint media statement by 14 institutions involved with child health and vaccination to back the safety of the jab which we issued to coincide with the GMC hearing. However I did also send a note to Denis Campbell, the journalist who wrote the article and a friendly contact of ours, to make sure he knew that the SMC was unable to defend the piece to the angry scientists who were contacting us. The result was an invitation to meet with him, the readers' editor and a variety of other Observer news editors at their offices. So, with two leading MMR experts at my side, I went to highlight the concerns.

One of the main points that I made at that meeting was my belief that in science reporting the rule of thumb should be that the more outrageous the claim the more the need for the best standards of journalism – a rule which is often interpreted in exactly the opposite way by journalists hungry for a sensational scoop. I then argued that I would take this rule even further in this peculiarly sensitive and important public health issue. The claim that MMR may cause autism, made by Dr Andrew Wakefield in 1998, produced one of the biggest rows in public health for decades and millions of pounds of public money have been spent on scientific studies researching the evidence for a link. Not a single reputable study has found any and just last year the SMC coordinated a joint appeal from many of those involved in child health that the media now draw a line under this row unless and until it has compelling new evidence. Many autism experts have echoed this call and issued their own plea for resources to move from the obsession with MMR to investigating the many other possible causes - including genetics, environmental factors and so on.

Given this context, I would argue that the bar for evidence in any newspaper splashing on a link between MMR and autism needs to be much higher than for other stories. In my view the Observer really needed to have produced stunning evidence of a link between MMR and autism to justify re-running this particular scare story.

Stunning evidence it wasn’t. The two researchers cited are experts in autism but not in MMR and the study they were involved with was nothing to do with MMR. In fact it had nothing whatsoever to do with what causes autism at all - it simply looked into prevalence of autism. As such, the authors private views on MMR are neither significant in terms of public health or in any way relevant to the Observer's story. In fact I'm tempted to say that their private views as to what causes autism are no more significant than my mum's view - something on which it seems Dr Fiona Scott agrees: when contacted the following day by the Telegraph she was not prepared to repeat any private views in public and instead voiced her support for MMR and her decision to get her daughter vaccinated.

One of the news editors pointed out that that any article reporting a dramatic rise in autism would prompt readers to turn to the question of MMR. I accept that but the way to answer those readers' questions is with an accurate summary of the balance of evidence against any link. Instead, any Observer reader whose mind turned to the question "is MMR to blame?" was provided with the answer that two out of seven experts believe it is and one believes it is not - a reckless distortion of the real balance of views within the scientific community.

Ironically, if this piece had appeared in certain other campaigning papers, no would one would even bothered complaining. The fact that it was in the Observer, which has a reputation for excellent science and health coverage, made it worth challenging. The fact that senior editors invited us in and the acknowledgement by the readers' editor Stephen Pritchard the following week that the MMR allegations should not have been included in the autism story reassure me that the Observer have seriously reflected on the scientific community's concerns and their responsibilities as journalists - that should be welcomed.