Monday, 13 July 2009

There’s life in the old dog yet: in defence of journalism

Any notion that the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week was going to be a tame, cosy affair was shattered at the opening plenary when a row broke out as to what constitutes science journalism. Jeff Nesbit, Director of the office of legislative affairs at the US National Science Foundation, which is a bit like our research councils, offered his prescription for the current crisis in science journalism – the scientific community should step in and do it ourselves. And this was not just a provocative idea – we learned that no sooner had Jeff heard that CNN had closed their entire science unit, than he hired two of them to write and film content for NSF’s websites. When I leapt to my feet to describe what he was doing as ‘science communication’ not ‘science journalism’, Nesbitt fought back with two contentious statements. Firstly he argued that because the two people he hired are journalists with journalistic training that they will still be doing journalism for NSF. And secondly that we no longer have the luxury of this academic debate – science journalism is disappearing before our eyes and the scientific community is obliged to step in and replace it.

For me the issue became the defining theme of the Conference and raised its head in almost every session. Most people spent the week trying to tell me that arrival of new media and the pressures on science journalism around the world mean that the lines between journalism and PR have now been blurred. Press officers tweeting all day and creating video clips for their University websites told me that the term press officer has become a misnomer as they spend as much time creating ‘content’ as helping journalists to create it. And science writers who have moved from national newspapers to write for popular science blogs insisted that they are engaged in the same craft. But just because we are blurring lines doesn’t mean those lines no longer exist. And nor does it mean that we should not pause at this time of change and reflect on whether those lines are important to maintain. One of the delegates challenged Nesbitt to give the money spent hiring the ex CNN reporters to CNN to keep them on. Unrealistic maybe, but a neat way of making the point that we have some choices here. Faced with a crisis in journalism we can look for ways to shore it up and defend it, or we can simply declare it in terminal decline and set about replacing it.

I think one of the reasons Nesbitt’s talk left me bristling is that I’m finding it increasingly hard to find anyone to defend the craft of journalism. Having decided aged 18 to study it and spent my adult life as a journalism junky I find this alarming. Of course I could talk about its flaws forever and listening to Nick Davies again at the conference we were reminded that ‘churnalism’ prevails. But at its best journalism represents a specific approach which is distinct from other forms of communication; it is a process with a common set of standards including selection, investigation, truth telling, independence, editing, accuracy, balance, scrutiny, objectivity and so on.

Yet for some this fine set of mores is so fragile that it has apparently just collapsed in the face of a barrage of new technologies. Mobile phones, blogs and twitter have, we are told, made journalists of us all. I can’t tell you how mad it makes me to hear the people who were caught up in the July 7th bombings or the poor unfortunates vomiting on some cruise ship, or even the brave protestors in Iran described as ‘citizen journalists’. They are nothing of the sort – they are members of the public caught up in a news story as members of the public always have been. Yes their photos, blogs and tweets have radically changed the face of journalism – mostly for the better - but that does not make them journalists. And anyone who noticed how many conflicting reports came from the ‘citizen journalists’ who witnessed the shooting of John Charles de Menzes should note that a journalist is still needed to sift thought these accounts and apply journalistic standards to the mess.

And I have a similar reaction to Jeff Nesbitt’s approach. I don’t buy the ‘once a journalist always a journalist’ line and in fact I take a sneaking pleasure in watching many journalists who have been rude about PR finally come over to the dark side when needs must. Jeff’s ex-journalists will make great employees, they will understand the way the media works and apply the values of journalism to what they do but they are no longer working journalists. As soon as NSF employed them to produce copy for its website they underwent a career change – they can take their pick of job titles – they can be science writers, science communicators or science PR officers but they are not journalists. Of course I don’t actually know the finer details of their contract so maybe I will stand corrected but since there is a lot of this about I am determined to labour my point here. If NSF selects the subjects that they film then that immediately make this a different enterprise. And here’s a thing – what if in the course of their work for NSF they discover a funding scandal or uncover a scientific fraud– will that end up as a film on the website? Maybe I’ll be surprised by the answers but we should at least ask the questions.

I am not in any way posing science journalism as superior to science communication. I am a huge fan of the latter and believe it's imperative for science in general to get round the very journalistic vagaries that I alluded to earlier. Just because journalism is worth defending does not mean it’s always a good thing for science, as we know to our cost after stories like GM and MMR. Finding ways round some of the less attractive norms of journalism – the perverse news values, the dreaded headline writers, the need to ‘balance’ every article – is critical and scientists should use every method at their disposal to get the full story about science direct to the public. But in the same way that ‘citizen journalists’ would never have claimed that title for themselves, none of the science communicators I know see themselves as journalists and while the delegate who described us as ‘cheerleaders’ for science may have gone too far, I think most science press officers and communicators would accept that we are paid to get the best possible profile for the science carried out in our institutions.

Nor am I arguing that some of the new approaches like the one described by Nesbitt will not end up taking the place of traditional journalism. If Nick Davies’ bleak view that the thing we know as ‘journalism’ may be beyond saving is right then we must accept that we need to look at ways of doing something similar which achieves some of the same ends – informing educating and entertaining vast sections of the public about science. Indeed some blogs like RealClimate and PlanetEarth could be said to be doing that already. But that still doesn’t make these things ‘journalism’. It’s perhaps ironic that a week after Davies announced the death of journalism at the World Conference he himself broke one of the biggest stories of the year about the bugging of celebrities phones.

It is precisely because science journalism (as all traditional journalism) is under pressure and in decline that I think we need to fight for it. Instead of standing by passively and allowing lines to be blurred and investing in alternatives, we should consider ways to defend, shore up and champion science journalism – something we did collectively and to good effect at the World Conference.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Fiona discusses science and politics on Radio 4's Leading Edge

The Home Secretary publically demanded and received an apology from Professor David Nutt, Chair of the independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, for saying what he believes about the relative risks of ecstasy and horse riding. A few days later Professor Adrian Smith, who has recently moved from academia into government, was also forced to apologise to Secretary of State John Denham for saying what he believes, in a speech about the poor quality of science exams. Unlike Nutt, Smith is now a paid up civil servant as the Director General of Science and Research at the Department for Innovation Universities and Skills and as such not free to speak his mind. However, like Nutt, he was appointed to his post because of a long and distinguished career as a mathematician and academic. What they also have in common is that these retractions were not for racist gaffes or plunging the country into financial chaos – they are apologies demanded by government quite simply because what these experts believe conflicts with government policy.

This is a worrying trend and one that anyone interested in evidence based policy should care about. Surely the whole point of appointing leading scientists to advise or join the government is to access their expertise not stifle it. In her very public castigation of David Nutt Jacqui Smith insisted that his comments (published in a peer reviewed academic journal) were incompatible with his role as an adviser to government. But this is crazy – are scientists to stop publishing in their own field because they are chairing one committee advising government?

This is not to argue that government must always follow the advice of its scientific advisers. Politicians rightly base their decisions on many factors and I have no doubt that when rejecting the ACMD’s advice on the grading of cannabis and ecstasy the Home Secretary had to measure the strong views of police chiefs and the public against the recommendations of her own advisers. I have no objection to that – it’s called democracy and we have the option of voting Jacqui out if we don’t like her decisions. However that does not and should not translate into stopping us hearing what these scientists have to say in the first place.

As someone who cares passionately about the quality of public debate on science what worries me most is that society may lose out on the views and expertise of some of the UK’s leading academics on some of the most important issues of our time. Adrian Smith has promised not to repeat his concerns about the state of science education and it’s hard to see how David Nutt can keep hold of his job if he repeats his comments about the relative risks of ecstasy. At his valedictory lecture the wonderful former Chief Scientific Adviser and acclaimed chemist Professor Sir David King reflected on the trouble he got in with ministers after saying in the US that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism. His message to all the Scientific Advisers brought in to work for government was to think long and hard before making statements publically that might undermine government policy

Ever since Galileo, scientists have been testing established theories and challenging orthodoxies. A grown up, self confident government would have the courage to let our modern day Galileos do just that...from both inside and outside government. And guess what: we might even get more grown up and informed debates!

Broadcast on Leading Edge, BBC Radio 4, Thursday 5 March 2009

Friday, 13 February 2009

"Using a sledgehammer to crack a Nutt" - the media furore over ecstasy

It's hard to express just how dismayed I feel at the shameful way in which one of my favourite scientists was treated by the Government this week. Professor David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was condemned in parliament by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for comments in the media in which he argued that taking ecstasy was no more dangerous than riding horses. Slamming the Prof's comments as "trivialising the dangers of drugs" and "showing insensitivity to the families of victims", the Home Secretary informed MPs that she had called the scientist to demand that he apologise publically to her and to the families of victims. As one sketch writer described it: "With shameless self-righteousness, Miss Smith became the wielder of a sledgehammer to crush Professor Nutt."

With the honourable exception of Lib Dem MP Evan Harris who complained to the Speaker about the unprecedented attack on a "distinguished scientist who was unable to answer back in parliament", MPs raced to pile in against David Nutt with Keith Vaz prompting Jacqui Smith's outburst by asking whether she planned to have a word with her adviser and Tory MP Laurence Robertson suggesting that Professor Nutt "might be appropriately named but he's in the wrong job" (no apology yet issued for his rudeness!).

Of course demanding apologies these days is de rigueur – just this week the BBC demanded one from Carol Thatcher for her allegedly racist comments, Jeremy Clarkson for calling the PM a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot' and of course we are drowning in apologies from bankers. But spot the difference here. Professor Nutt was not asked to apologise for an insult overheard or for scientific fraud – he was being told to apologise for saying what he believes to be true based on over thirty years of distinguished scientific research in this field. To be precise this eminent scientist was being told to apologise for something he wrote in an editorial published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, a respected peer-reviewed journal.

Unlike Thatcher and Clarkson who gave half-hearted apologies, David Nutt did deliver the required apology which was widely reported in the press. But this was an apology that should never have been demanded and I believe it marks a shameful episode in the relationship between Government and their independent scientific advisers.

Let's look at a few facts here. David Nutt was appointed as Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs a few months ago after taking over from the equally wonderful and respected Michael Rawlins. The independent advisory body was set up in 1971 and as reported in the Guardian this week is widely respected for 'injecting some rationality' into drugs policy. The Home Office would have been fully aware of David's stance on ecstasy when they appointed him as Chair because he has presented scientific papers on it, published on it and argued around it for many, many years now. The Home Secretary was quick to declare that the views quoted in the press were incompatible with David's role as Chair of ACMD but the idea that leading researchers should abandon 30 years of their own research when they agree to chair an independent advisory body is ludicrous. David was appointed to this and many other influential advisory bodies because of his expertise, not in spite of it. And anyway, the comments that so angered Jacqui Smith were made in a paper published before he was appointed to chair the ACMD and written in his capacity as a Professor of Psychopharmacology, not as Chair of ACMD.

As Evan Harris MP pointed out: "As a scientist David Nutt would be expected to publish peer reviewed work in the scientific literature. In so doing he can occasionally expect to be criticised publically by the Daily Mail (as happened here) and by ignorant politicians (as happened here). But he would surely not expect to be phoned by the Home Secretary and told to apologise to her and to the families of [victims of] drug deaths. Surely the fact that he is an independent adviser to Government entitles him to more protection, not less, from public criticism from ministers."
While most of the scientists I spoke to felt sorry for David, some felt that speaking out like this the week before the long-awaited ACMD Report on ecstasy was due to recommend the downgrading of the drug was riskier than ecstasy and horse-riding put together (and no – don't try that at home!). I too wondered why David had decided to go public with comments that would obviously grab the headlines just days before he was due to brief the media on the considered and comprehensive recommendations of his committee. So I called him up and guess what – David hadn't gone to anyone with this story. Instead, as is so often the case on controversial issues like this one, the media came to him. On the weekend before the launch of his report David was contacted by journalists from the Daily Telegraph who had suddenly and inexplicably become regular readers of pre-prints of the Journal of Psychopharmacology. The Telegraph got their exclusive which was then picked up throughout the media forcing David into a number of interviews defending his position. This row was not of David Nutt's making or timing – a fact that should have been blatantly obvious to Government ministers and their army of sophisticated spin doctors.

This episode is laced with ironies, but perhaps the most obvious one is that Jacqui Smith accused David Nutt of "making light of a serious problem and trivialising the dangers of drugs". I feel the exact opposite has happened. The Home Secretary was not responding to David Nutt's scientific work on this issue but to the selective and partial reporting of that work in the news timed to stir up the row in advance of the ACMD report. What's that if not trivialising the issue?

David Nutt may well be controversial; you may well reject his work on comparing drug risks with other legal but dangerous activities – many excellent scientists do. But one thing you cannot accuse him of is being trivial or making light of the issue. I was present at press briefings where David Nutt explained his scientific work on harm analysis; he and the eminent scientist and former head of the Medical Research Council Colin Blakemore published a major paper on this approach in the Lancet at the Science Media Centre a couple of years ago, where they presented a complex evidence-based model which they argued could be used to rank illegal drugs in terms of harms and also drew out risk comparisons with some legal but dangerous activities. My point here is not that David Nutt is right, but that his approach is well known to the Home Office, shared and respected by many eminent scientists, and basically anything but 'trivial'.

As Professor Nutt said in an interview with Eddie Mair on PM on Radio 4: "The Government is concerned that downgrading ecstasy would be sending the wrong signal to young people. But I believe that the only correct signal is a signal based on the true scientific evidence. We damage that signal if we say that a drug is more harmful than it actually is."

And there is one other worrying aspect of this whole affair. One of the reasons that I and the Science Media Centre are friendly with David Nutt is that we have hosted the media briefings of the ACMD in the past. But this time we declined to do so on the basis that the Centre's fiercely protected independence was being undermined by the conditions being placed on us by the Home Office press officers about aspects of the press briefings. While the press officers for the ACMD are really nice people who have clearly developed some loyalty to the committee, at the end of the day they are Home Office press officers and the Home Secretary is their boss. For cases like cannabis and ecstasy where the evidence-based advice on classification from the advisors has been firmly rejected by the Government, this is a serious conflict of interest. One of the things that has emerged from this miserable affair is the critical importance of the mass media in these scientific controversies, and the SMC has now asked the IUSS Committee to look into how independent scientific advisers can get access to independent media relations support.

I was initially saddened that David Nutt had been forced to apologise but what became clear in his brilliant interview on PM on the day the report was published is that David Nutt wants to keep his job. Why? Because this scientist passionately believes that the ACMD can reach out beyond the shallow and superficial confines of a manufactured media spat shamefully engaged in by ministers, and generate a more considered, rational public debate on drugs. For that we should all salute him!

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Fiona creates a buzz at the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009 Programme Launch Party, London

If the Science Media Centre were to close down tomorrow the most important lesson I would have learned in my six years in science media relations is that science specialist reporters are our greatest ally. Quite simply when science reporters cover science stories, the stories are better. I do believe that science is a special case and needs specialist reporting. And I do believe that bad science reporting costs lives.

It's because I think science reporters are a special case that I think we need a special conference for science journalism. Those of you who know me will know I'm a conference sceptic and tend to think that too many people sit in conferences discussing science communication rather than actually doing it, but that scepticism went out the window when I attended the World Conference of Science Journalists in Melbourne, 2007. Being in the company of 600 science journalists from 50 countries was an amazing experience. I knew this conference was different when I slipped into the first session late to hear contributions from the floor from the editor of Scientific American, the editor of Nature, the science editor of the Toronto Star and head of science at the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

As Chair of the Programme Committee for the World Conference of Science Journalists 2009, I was in despair a year ago because we were sitting looking at a blank page where the programme should be. Now I'm in despair for a different reason, because we have such a wonderful programme that the big dilemma is which sessions I can actually go to and tragically which ones I'll have to miss.

On day one there is Jia Hepeng's session on Reporting science in countries with restraints which clashes with Ehsan Masood's session on Reporting creationism, which in turn clashes with my session with Nick Davies, the author of Flat Earth News and creator of the term 'churnalism'.

Then on Wednesday there is the choice between Tim Radford in conversation with Bob May, or Martin Moore's session on Whether science journalism and science PR have become too close for comfort, and I can't go to either because I'm speaking at a session with my fellow Directors of Science Media Centres in New Zealand, Australia and Canada on How science in the media looks entirely different in different countries.

I am really proud of the programme. Pallab Ghosh, President of the World Federation of Science Journalists, has been on our case the whole time to make it edgy and provocative, and he is not disappointed. Put it like this there are likely to be lots of rows and debates that will spill out into the coffee breaks and parties. This conference will generate a very real debate about very real topical controversies in science journalism.

Now all we need is the audience, so please tell everyone, let’s create even more of a buzz, WCSJ2009 is the place to be for everyone who cares about science journalism!”