Thursday, 28 July 2011

Thoughts on the BBC Trust review of science coverage

When invited to comment on the BBC's coverage of science Sir David Attenborough responded that it stands, 'head, shoulders, thorax and abdomen' over that of any other broadcaster. Having been commissioned by the BBC Trust to carry out an independent assessment of the accuracy and impartiality of science coverage, geneticist Steve Jones is minded to agree, though in his words 'My review gives the BBC head and shoulders, and probably thorax, but suggests that we need to talk about the abdomen'.

Amongst the complications found by Jones in the abdomen was the thorny issue of 'journalistic balance' as applied to science. Indeed before last week's publication of the Review I would have half expected this piece to appear on one side of a page opposite James Delingpole's objections. But if the Review is to be believed the days of the BBC's obsession with balancing every view from mainstream science with an opposing view may be numbered. Agreeing with Professor Jones's views on this, the Trust has stated that a 'false balance between well-established fact and opinion must be avoided'. And BBC bosses agree, stating in their response that an 'over rigid' application of the need for balance has allowed minority or even contrarian views an undue place'. They have offered to run training and seminars to 'improve our journalists understanding of impartiality in science'

These bits of the report have found favour among leading scientists with Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society saying, "It is important to have debate but marginal opinion, prominently expressed but not well based on evidence, can mislead the audience". Like Attenborough and Jones most scientists rate the BBC's science coverage highly but the 'he said/she said' reporting of contentious issues drives them to distraction . As Jones says:

"The world is not flat, life is not six thousand years old, carbon dioxide levels are rising through human activity and smoking causes lung cancer. Millions choose to disagree with each of these statements but within the world of science there is almost no difference of opinion about any of them."

Jones repeatedly calls for 'equality of voice' by which he means that if the BBC insist on featuring disagreements they should at least choose guests with some expertise and understanding of the debate. And in one of many great one liners in this report Jones says 'The BBC would not have a discussion between a centre-forward and an opera critic but some of the debates on science have been that surreal."

I know people are bored with the MMR example and admittedly much has changed for the better in the past 10 years, but there are good reasons not to forget it just yet. Whether your preferred villain of the piece is Andrew Wakefield, the Lancet or the Blairs (for refusing to confirm that baby Leo had the jab), the truth is that none of those actors can be blamed for
misleading the public into believing that medical science was split down the middle on the safety of MMR. That most wholly inaccurate and dangerous belief was down to the media's obsession with 'balancing' every interview with a medical scientist defending the safety of the vaccine with someone against.

And while the most intelligent discussions I’ve had on this issue are with specialist science reporters at the Beeb, I am not entirely convinced that everyone has been able kick the habit. When the government announced a new attempt at a national dialogue on GM crops earlier this year I had a horrible sense of déjà vu. Producer after producer on news programmes called asking for pro- and anti-GM guests. Now considering the story was a call for dialogue, it is not surprising that different voices were sought, but the result was an unnecessarily polarised debate. While the 'perfect storm' of climate change, food shortages and population rise should have changed just about everything about the context of this debate it seems some in the BBC just want to re-run the old debate.

For me the frustrating bit of this 'he said/she said' reporting is the implicit failure of journalists to guide their audiences closer to the truth. After 10 years in science I am better qualified now to judge between two experts making diametrically opposite scientific claims, but less qualified people are just left having to hazard a guess. Alternatively, in what one commentator has called 'regression towards a phoney mean', the journalists seem to hope that their impartiality will lead audiences to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (Jones likens this to asking a mathematician and a maverick biologist what 2 + 2 equals. When the mathematicians says 4 and the maverick says 5, the presenter sums up that the answer is something like 4.5 and proclaims that "the debate will go on").

Interestingly the Trust is now suggesting that the broadcaster should have more of a responsibility for guiding audiences towards the truth. Speaking at the press briefing the Head of Standards clearly stated that presenters will be expected to make the distinction between well-established fact and opinion clear to the audience. While they insist that minority voices are not going to disappear from the airwaves, they will in future be 'sign posted' by presenters.

Of course all this stuff would have been sorted by now if it was easy and I'm sure I am not the only one with questions as to how this will work in practice. How will the presenters 'signpost' where the weight of evidence lies when guests are disputing exactly that point (one sceptical editor has already suggested playing a jingle in the background to alert listener to the maverick!). Will the Trust put their money where their mouth is when the complaints from the critics of science come flooding in, and what happens when the scientists themselves stray into expressing personal or political views - is that signposted too?

There is also a danger that Steve Jones' position looks like special pleading for science, a call for censorship, or an example of 'scientism', the claim that science is the only valid way of understanding the world. However on the whole Jones stays on the right side of these lines and there are wonderful passages in the report about the need to be open about scientific uncertainties, to challenge orthodoxies and to have robust debate on policy issues. However Jones subscribes to the view that people are entitled to their own opinions but not entitled to their own facts. He also holds to a contentious, shared by many in science, that impartiality checks are already built into the scientific enterprise whereby findings have been thoroughly tested, replicated and reviewed by peers before they would ever get on air.

Yet Jones’ repeated call for a 'common sense' interpretation of impartiality suggests that this debate is as much about intelligent journalism as it is about prescriptive rules and signposts. My own view is that most of the real horror stories in 'false balance' happen when the science reporter leaves the office and hard pressed general reporters have to find guests at short notice. While it may get little attention the recommendation that could sort out most of the problems in this respect is that general news journalists, editors and presenters should make much better use of the excellent science specialists that surround them

There are other nuggets in this report that deserve highlighting. Pointing out that the BBC has more science reporters than the rest of the UK media put together, Jones urges the corporation to lead by example in encouraging more original reporting and less reliance on the 'diary' stories that emerge from the weekly diet of scientific journals.

The least convincing recommendation for me is the proposal for a new Science Editor for News. The new role is posited as the answer to what Jones identifies as the 'fractionated' nature of science in the Beeb where science journalists working in different parts of the organization stay in silos. But if, as looks likely, the post becomes the new Robert Peston for science then the new editor will spend so much time reporting the top science stories that they will have little time for the kind of co-ordination needed.

At the end of the week in which the Review was published I chaired the press launch of the new Academy of Medical Sciences report on the use of research animals containing human material. In a week where tabloid subeditors and picture desks had a field day with 'Frankenstein monsters' and 'Planet of the Apes', it was good to turn on the Today programme and hear Tom Feilden and Fergus Walsh covering the report beautifully. If the Trust Review does nothing more than remind busy BBC bosses that they should look after their science reporters it will be a job well done.

An edited version of this article appears in the latest edition of 'Ariel', the BBC's staff magazine.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Churnalism: demonizing PR is too simple

What has 'churnalism' got to do with the phone hacking scandal? Plenty according to Chris Atkins, in his support for the motion This house believes news articles based on press releases should be marked 'Advertorial' at a debate at the Royal Statistical Society last week. Atkins opened by claiming that 'churning' out news stories copied and pasted from press releases is at the mild end of the scale of dishonest things journalists do which ends with phone hacking.

And he knows a thing or two about this. When the Media Standards Trust (MST) launched their new website, Atkins sent out a number of hoax press releases which were slavishly reproduced by a variety of national news outlets – including the posh papers.

My favourite, about a "chastity garter" which contains a text message-sending microchip to alert a woman's partner if she is being unfaithful, became the most-read story on the Daily Mail's website.

The linking of phone hacking and churnalism found favour with the main organizer of the debate Martin Moore, Director of the MST, who raced to it from the House of Lords launch of the campaign for a public enquiry into phone hacking.

Atkins, Director of Starsuckers and Taking Liberties, was supported by James Randerson, News Editor for Science and Environment at the Guardian.

Against them were Trevor Morris, lecturer in PR at the University of Westminster and David Higgerson, Head of Multimedia at Trinity Mirror. I was chairing (after declining an invitation to speak because, uncharacteristically, I can't make up my mind.)

Atkins argued that passing press releases off as news is fundamentally dishonest. He insisted he was not out to demonise PR, but went on to claim that while the role of journalists is to tell the truth, the role of PR is serve their paymasters, and, yes, 'they lie'.

The essence of Atkins' argument was compelling – that the public have a right to know where journalists source their news, and that putting a bold sign on every article taken primarily from a press release could make readers do interesting things, like vote with their feet by seeking out journalists and newspapers that do more original journalism

Just as the audience began to believe we could enter a kind of journalistic nirvana, in came David Higgerson to explain that the press release is now the chosen form of communication with the media of almost every institution in society – many of whom we want to and need to hear from. Press releases get a bad press he argued, pointing out that many are written by former journalists who write well and know what the media needs. Admitting to not being a fan of's 'churn engine' which allows users to trace how many stories are copied from press releases, Higgerson claimed it is a blunt tool: for instance, it fails to show whether journalists have checked the facts in the press release, or which press releases have been rejected.

He concluded with an argument that did rather queer the pitch of the proposers - that the press release is only one of the many ways the PR industry exert its influence. While his example of one disgruntled company PR threatening to turn up at his desk with a mallet is thankfully rare, it did drive the point home. Other dark arts include the angry call to the editor from would-be Alastair Campbells and the threat of withdrawal of advertising. Neither of those, of course, would be any more visible in a brave new world where press release stories are labelled.

This last point was echoed by Trevor Morris, the former PR guru, who pointed out that lots of PR comes from private briefings, tips offs and leaks, prompting Morris to suggest that, alongside labels like 'Advertorial', we would have to label other copy as 'Leakatorial' and so on.

Morris delivered a list of rather brutal home truths: if we have less PR we will have less media, and less media means less advertising which is bad for journalism. Also, PR allows small players without big advertising budgets to get media space. And PR keeps the cost of journalism down. Finally, PR people have a vested interest in supporting journalism because without the media they would lose their jobs.

Morris also argued that power of PR is grossly overstated by both its supporters and its critics – which explains why so many powerful people who spend buckets on the best PR advice still crash and burn (the Murdoch empire comes to mind). He said that 90% of press releases are never even used - which suggests that there is a lot more journalistic judgment going on in newsrooms than we are giving credit for.

It was left to James Randerson to subvert the motion by sheepishly admitting he couldn't give it the full-throated defence expected at this kind of debate. He started by bringing up the other media scandal of recent weeks in the form of the Johann Hari plagiarism saga. James sees some of the same paternalism displayed by Hari in his defence of lifting quotes from other sources in the general reluctance to be more open about where journalists have sourced their stories.

For Randerson the idea that the journalist knows best and the reader doesn't need to worry about the mysterious craft of reporting is no longer justifiable in a time of ever increasing demand for transparency. Instead of labelling articles as advertorial, Randerson argued for the simplest of solutions – linking to sources. For Randerson, the fact that we now have the technical ability to do so with such ease makes this move towards more transparency both desirable and inevitable.

Randerson shares Atkins' belief that more transparency could drive up standards. After all, few reporters come into journalism to copy stories from press releases. Being forced to reveal this would be an eye-opener for the public and may result in more self-policing policy in newsrooms.

The final vote was 23 for the motion – demanding the Advertorial label – and 39 against. The speakers concluded with a kind of consensus that more transparency about sources would be a good thing but the problem of churnalism is unlikely to be fixed by newspapers full of 'Advertorial' signs.

Personally, I think the critics of PR make the mistake of using it as a catch-all term. Product placement PR or the frothy opinion polls that trace back to some big corporate with something to sell are worthy but easy targets. It's not so simple in the science world, where I work: many press releases exist to document the findings of long, complex research studies on public health and the environment. Putting 'Advertorial' over a report of a press released Nature paper showing that asbestos-like effects have been found in the lungs of mice exposed to nanoparticles seems crazy to me.

Nor do I buy the idea that a newspaper should be spared the label just because a journalist calls the researcher directly and gets an almost identical comment to the press release – probably rehearsed by the scientist and press officer in preparation for publication. For me, the test of reporting in science should be whether the public and policy makers get access to good, factually accurate, balanced and truthful information. If that is done by journalists and press officers working together and includes a press release, then fine. The failures in this area are as much down to shoddy sensationalised journalism as they are down to an over-reliance on press releases.

PR, like journalism, is a mixed bag, but if I was asked to identify the people who most symbolise the pursuit of accurate, critical and balanced reporting, my list would include as many press officers as journalists.

Atkins argued that if lifting the lid on the way journalists get their stories leads to a decline in public trust in the media, that is a thoroughly good thing if forces journalists to change for the better.

In other weeks, Atkins' faith in radical and dramatic change in journalism might have sounded naïve and idealistic. But in the light of current headlines, it seems less so.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Just back from the World Conference of Science Journalists

I have just returned from the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha. Sadly the conference had to be moved from Cairo earlier this year because the revolution was literally exploding on the streets when conference centres, hotels and flights needed to be booked. But the spirit of the Arab Spring ran through the conference and it was exhilarating to be surrounded by people who had just changed the world. The Egyptian conference organizer, Nadia El-Awady, joined others at a plenary session to talk about the tension between their professional roles as objective reporters and their growing passion for the revolution. Nadia and Mohammed Yahia, the young Editor of Nature Middle East, who were part of the daily demonstrations in Tahrir Square described the exact moments when they each decided that they could no longer be neutral observers and must take sides.

Yahia closed the Conference with a plea to journalists in Egypt, Tunisia etc to fight to define a new form of free journalism. Echoing others he said the revolution was 'the easy part' and now science journalists must play their part in fighting for a new form of independent journalistic enquiry; "It can’t be the passive science journalism that was taking place in many of the state-run agencies. It needs to be more active – we need to push for more freedom."

These brave young science writers should make us all feel just a little less comfortable in our safe, easy lives as journalists and press officers and it frustrated me that more UK science journalists were not there to be inspired.

Restrictions on scientists speaking out

Talking of being slightly shamed, one of the themes of this conference for me was a growing tendency amongst western countries to prevent government funded scientists from speaking out. Editor of Research Fortnight Ehsan Masood cautioned early on in the conference about assuming that restrictions on free speech for scientists come only from authoritarian regimes. This point was graphically illustrated in the session on 'Secret Science' at which talks from Russia and China were followed by one from democratic Canada. Veteran science reporter Margaret Munro shocked the audience with the revelation that almost all the government environmental scientists she has relied on in in her 30 year career are now prevented from speaking directly to her under new government rules. Munro described the rapid rise of the 'wrong kind of press officer’ who see their job as controlling scientists and ‘corporate messaging'. The new restrictions have at least caused a stir in Canada and even made front page news. While there are no blanket rules restricting government scientists speaking out here in the UK there are some worrying signs. People still cite the now notorious sacking of Prof David Nutt, an independent government drugs adviser, but few have commented on the fact that more recently several government funded agencies with useful scientific expertise were told by government not to do media interviews throughout the Fukushima crisis.

Inaugural meeting of SMCs

The subject of restrictions on scientists speaking out became a hot topic at the first ever meeting of the rapidly growing collective of SMCs held to coincide with the conference. Present at the meeting were the established SMCs from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Canada, with Denmark due to open its doors soon. But we were also joined by representatives from possible new SMCs in Norway, Italy and China. While none of us have lived through a revolution, the sense of being on the brink of something new and exciting marked the meeting where we discussed the huge added value of being part of a truly international collaboration. Obviously there are threats as well as promise and probably the most important item on the agenda was the drafting of a Charter of Principles governing the establishment and running of SMCs. The challenge for the meeting was to get a Charter which does not restrict different national models of SMC while also ensuring that there are core values around independence that all SMCs must subscribe to to be part of the Collective. The first draft of the Charter should be ready soon and will be one of the first things to appear on the new international SMC website being created by our colleagues in New Zealand. By the way, any ideas for a name for the new Collective are welcome – perhaps the lack of easy access to alcohol in Doha can be blamed for the lack of inspiration so far!

SMCs challenged

The SMCs had a session in the main programme using the Fukushima crisis as a case study for the way we operate in different countries with very different media landscapes Given we were at a journalism conference we decided to invite a journalist onto the panel to critique the SMC model. BBC science reporter Pallab Ghosh had agreed but had to pull out at the last minute, so we got the wonderful Connie St Louis instead. Connie is Chair of the Association of British Science Writers and runs the new masters course in science journalism at City University. Connie took on her role as critic enthusiastically and told the audience that the SMCs are actively encouraging the trends towards lazy 'copy and paste' journalism, are becoming too powerful and are vulnerable to being hijacked by maverick scientists, campaigners and funders alike. Connie told us that she teaches her students to do real journalism - to 'dig out' original stories, ask the tough questions to mainstream scientists and to keep a distance between themselves and the scientists they report.

I was first to respond to Connie and said that I tended to agree with much of her characterization of the problems within journalism. I also conceded that by adapting great science to the needs of a media the SMCs can be seen as part of the problem. But I countered that we are Science Media Centres and not Journalism Media Centres. It is not our role to fix the problems of journalism but to ensure that a media under pressure is still able to report science well. The notion that if the world’s SMCs disappeared tomorrow all the science hacks would become 'diggers' rather than 'churners' really does credit us with way too much influence. It also misses the point that the SMCs have a wide variety of contacts with journalists and actually often help them to do the kind of original reporting that Connie and I so admire.

Many of Connie’s comments on that panel were echoed in her interview with Martin Robbins for his excellent blog post on the lack of original and investigative reporting which became a talking point at the conference. While I stand accused of denying the extent of the problems with science journalism I have always argued that there is a shocking lack of investigative reporting in science – a point that came out of my report for Government last year which recommended that the scientific community should fund a science strand at the new Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

However I baulk at the assumption that anything short of original investigations is 'not really journalism'. Running 2- 3 science press briefings a week puts me at very close quarters to the process of science reporting and the truth is that journalists do interrogate the scientists on SMC panels – so much so that we warn scientists to prepare for every claim they make to be pulled apart. They do use their years of specialist reporting to put studies in context and they often add comment and information even when the briefing has been about an extremely in depth and complex piece of science. The briefing I ran just before leaving for Doha was a case in point – ask the UEA and Cambridge authors of the paper on polypharmacy if they felt that journalists failed to challenge their claims during the hour long SMC press briefing and they would probably choke on their tea – I think Channel 4’s Tom Clarke alone asked about 4 times in different ways how the scientists could prove that the effects they saw were not caused by the illnesses themselves.

Both Connie and Martin would have enjoyed the WCSJ conference session on global health reporting with London’s very own Andrew Jack from the FT and Maria Cheng from AP, joined by American science journalist Jon Cohen and chaired by Martin Enserink from Science. Maria Cheng started by showing heart wrenching photos of African children – but only to warn us of the dangers of giving public health stories an easy ride. She also objected to the use of celebrities and hype around global public health and called for a higher standard of interrogation of some of the claims in this arena. Andrew Jack showed us a succession of FT stories – primarily exclusives – that had exposed problems and ultimately forced companies and governments to change policies and withdraw products. Jon described his role as a 'miner' and then showed how journalists can exploit the new openness of institutions like Gates Foundation and WHO to mine the figures and reveal inconsistencies. They also mocked some of what passes for investigative reporting on global health with Enserink lampooning a story that sought to blame Bill Gates for the worldwide obesity epidemic because he invested in McDonalds. Enserink also revealed his pet hate when newspaper articles open with 'We have learned that……' when all they have actually 'learned' is how to read a university press release. But there was no sign on any 'churnalists' on this panel and it was a refreshing reminder that we don’t have to look too far to find great reporters doing proper journalism

All in all, it was a great conference and a great opportunity for science journalists and those like me who care about their trade to reflect on our role and challenge ourselves. The next one is in Helsinki in 2 years. I am taking bets on how many new SMCs will be up and running by then, and hoping to persuade one or two more British science journalists that they would love this conference. Plus, I hear the Finns make excellent vodka…