Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Are embargo breaks bad for science?

The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE)’s very public ticking off of Jonathan Leake for breaking an embargo has prompted an angry reaction from some journalists; they have cleared Leake of breaking an embargo, because he had no access to embargoed material, and some have even called for ESHRE to apologise for their public rebuke. So once again the thorny issue of embargoes has raised its head, reminding us that journalists and science press officers are fundamentally different animals.

Now I like Jonathan Leake a lot, and have worked with him on many good science stories over the years, but he is a serial embargo breaker and I mean serial. Countless press officers could probably confirm Leake’s claim that he did not take this story from embargoed material because he no longer has access to any! Every scientific journal I know and many scientific bodies, including the SMC, have long since removed Leake from their press lists – as had ESHRE. The fact that he therefore operates outside the embargo system means that he is free to break embargoes wherever he chooses – a state of affairs he exploits to full effect; and one that is perhaps not quite as brave and intrepid as it first appears. Yes, we would all like to see more investigative journalism, with less reliance on press releases and PR, but do we really want it to look like this?

As with every high profile embargo break, and the debate that follows, it is complicated. And this case is no different. But whatever the truth about exactly how it came about, if Leake knew this story was under embargo and ran it anyway then in my book that qualifies as an embargo break! I might even speculate further and suggest it was possibly because it was under embargo that he ran it. The story made a good front page splash for two reasons: firstly, because it’s a great story, but secondly because it meant the Sunday Times beat their competitors to it. Leake is a science reporter of long standing who knows the rules of scientific conferences, and he probably knew that his colleagues at the Times and all those science reporters sent to Rome by their papers would be waiting for that embargo to lift.

I am not saying that there are never any exonerating circumstances for embargo breaks, and the SMC considers its response on a case by case basis. We decided not to act against the science reporters on the Times last year when their Scottish editor and a freelancer ran a front page splash on a vitamin D study due to be launched at the SMC the next day. Our enquiries revealed that one of the authors had been in close contact with the Scottish editor for some months and had long promised him an exclusive when the study made it into a journal. However, we did act against a former Telegraph health editor who splashed a hotly awaited Nuffield report on premature babies before our embargoed briefing - 24 hours before the embargo was due to lift. On this occasion the journalist in question had registered for the embargoed briefing but was allegedly handed an unembargoed report by a contact the night before. Despite fierce protests from her Telegraph colleagues, the SMC banned the offending journalist for three months. We then made it clear to all reporters using the SMC that if they made the decision to run a story they clearly knew to be embargoed in advance of an SMC briefing – thus ruining a briefing that may have been months in the making and depriving the entire media of a important public health story – we would have no choice but to remove them from our lists. The message is simple: run the splash but pay the price!

And here’s the thing – I don’t want to start bleating about the importance of the work done by the SMC, and god forbid I should even suggest that journalists have responsibilities to the public, but I would ask commentators to at least reflect about the consequences of embargo breaks on individual science stories. The SMC’s job is to work with scientists to help them ensure their science is covered in the most accurate and evidence-based way by the news media. In the Telegraph case, the scientists who had spent a year producing a thoughtful and sensitive report addressing whether babies under 24 weeks should be left to die suddenly found themselves catapulted onto the front pages and into the broadcast media before having had any chance to explain their findings to the whole of the news media in a considered way. The Telegraph got their splash ahead of the others at the expense of the public and policy makers getting access to the nuanced findings of this important report. Last week the SMC in fact ran a press briefing for journalists registered for ESHRE, where three leading fertility experts urged caution and care with the reporting of the ovarian reserves story. None of those caveats or caution showed up in Leake’s article or the subsequent broadcast and comment pieces that followed his report. In other words, embargo breaks have a huge effect on a story – on where it appears and how it appears. And it's particularly serious when this happens with research that has important implications for patients that need to be properly explained and put into context.

There are also broader issues here. What does it mean for the embargo system as a whole if one science reporter operates not just outside it but is completely immune to it? I know of several science reporters who are now being encouraged to break embargoes by their editors for fear of regularly losing out to the Sunday Times. I am all for replacing the embargo system with something better – whatever that might be – but there is a difference between a planned revolution and chaotic system collapse, something that will surely happen soon if no Monday paper can rely on an embargo being held.

It has also raised the issue of original journalism and ‘hunting for stories’, but surely the Sunday Times splash is not that? Running a story the rest of the media have access to, and simply doing it 24 hours before anyone else, is about as far away from original reporting as I can imagine. When I set up and ran the debate on embargoes at the World Conference of Science Journalists last June I actually wanted to side with the impassioned anti-embargo duo of Richard Horton and Vincent Kiernan who gave us a glorious idealistic vision of science reporting, freed from the shackles of the ‘diary’ story and free to roam the laboratories of the world in search of stories. I also think many science reporters share that dream, but turning it into a reality is easier said than done, as demonstrated by Richard Horton himself who continues to edit a journal whose embargoes are vigorously enforced!

The irony here is that Jonathan Leake does have the time to seek these stories out. I know embargoes often don’t work for Sunday newspapers – and that must be incredibly frustrating – but that disadvantage is surely outweighed by the luxury of time to find stories? Indeed Leake does sometimes do it; he attends scientific conferences like AAAS and manages to track down stories not being covered by the dailies. He does find good stories – but he also grabs a lot of low-hanging fruit and this should not be applauded.

Emma Mason and Mary Rice, the ESHRE press officers being chastised for their rebuke of Leake, are two of the best, most experienced science press officers I know, and have transformed journalists’ experience of ESHRE's conference into a well managed operation. Perhaps there are lessons learned about how information and abstracts from a conference are distributed – but even more likely than this the experience will make ESHRE and others look for even stronger methods to protect their embargoes.

I am sure before long we will be having this debate again – the embargo, as we would all freely admit, is not a perfect system. But many journalists, much as they may dislike it, would also admit that it is incredibly helpful given the time pressures they are under. And until we can come up with something better, it’s all we’ve got.

Friday, 11 June 2010

On Ben v Jeremy

Given the history and role of the SMC I'm afraid I can't stay out of the debate that has broken out this week about science in the media. In a column in the Independent, Jeremy Laurance, the paper's health editor, lashed out after Ben Goldacre's latest Bad Science column in the Guardian in which Laurance says Ben 'pistol whipped' his colleague Denis Campbell for an article about the brain enhancing properties of omega 3 fatty acids.

In response Ben and others have fought back, accusing Jeremy and other science reporters of being thin skinned, allergic to criticism and defending the indefensible.

But here's a thing. I don't happen to believe Jeremy's outburst is about any of the above. I think it's about the tone of Ben's particular brand of critique. Those who have read the exchanges will know that accurate facts are held at a premium so here's one for you - Jeremy Laurance is one of the most highly respected health reporters in the UK, loved by legions of eminent researchers, clinicians and journal editors for his accurate and insightful reporting over 20 years.

Rather than rush to dismiss Laurance's piece as a defence of bad science reporting as others have, I would urge you to take a deep breath and consider what lies behind this rather uncharacteristic outburst. One thing I do know is that the frustration with Ben that explodes off the Independent page is not unique to Jeremy. The sense of a yawning gap between the brutal realities for jobbing journalists filing ever more stories to ever tighter deadlines and the luxury of a columnist like Ben who gets to lay bare the flaws in those stories once a week is now shared by almost every science reporter I know. Some still bear the scars of their own 'pistol whipping', others protest that they are an exception to his often sweeping attacks. And some, like Jeremy, are just appealing to this particular judge to entertain the existence of a few mitigating circumstances and allow for long years of good behaviour.

I believe the world needs Ben Goldacre and his Bad Science column, and he has pioneered a form of accountability which is doubtless the envy of politicians and football managers. The fear of being 'Goldacred' may have even improved science reporting in newsrooms. I hardly need say why it matters but Ben put it beautifully in one of his comments this week that people base their behaviours on this stuff and turning a blind eye to bad reporting can seriously damage human health. But the science and medical journalists generally think that too and when Ben started his column they warmly welcomed it as an additional way of exerting pressure on their editors. Indeed I seem to remember one Jeremy Laurance was one of the most vocal supporters.

So what has changed? Well I think it's back to tone. Ben was well within his rights to do his weekly column on the weaknesses in the Observer report on Omega 3 but he would not have prompted this backlash if he had done it in a different style. And he could win back the respect of many other UK science reporters if he could occasionally write a sentence or two about the messy business of daily health reporting or acknowledge those journalists who have bravely stood against the trends on issues like MMR – people like Sarah Boseley on his own paper. Arguably Jeremy too should have taken more care to emphasize that just because there are huge pressures to cut corners doesn't mean we should justify cutting them – something he has managed to avoid himself throughout this long career.

Denis Campbell has transgressed before, within weeks of taking on the health brief. But in between then and now he has delivered a hell of a lot of health stories and had his fair share of exclusives. Could he be better? Yes. Did that article fall short of the best journalistic standards? Yes. Should the tone used by Ben in his critique be the same as that applied to Andrew Wakefield, Gillian McKeith and AIDS? Absolutely not.

I have a huge respect for Ben Goldacre's core belief that we deserve a better media and that having one person out there banging that drum should be seen as a help not a hindrance. But there are lots of ways to be a thorn in the side.

I know Ben thinks I am dreary and repetitive in my defence of specialist journalism but if we're honest there is repetition from all sides in this debate. Science blogger Ed Yong concludes his comments on Ben's site with this: 'Perhaps in future, we should all stop being such meanies to "young, eager reporters" and just ruffle the lovable scamps' hair and draw a sad face on their report cards.' Is that the best we can do? Can we not rise above the playground and conduct this most critical of discussions in a grown up manner with a bit more mutual respect for the different roles we play? I suggest we try.