Saturday the 10th of April, arguably the hottest day of the year thus far, witnessed a pub chat with a difference. A scientist and a journalist joined us to host a debate about how science is portrayed in the news, in order to aid the public in understanding a process that can sometimes lead to some pretty scary stories appearing in the pages of your favourite newspaper.
In the science corner was Allan Pacey, a veteran of dealing with science in the media, having worked in newspapers, on the radio, even on the television when he appeared in Channel Four’s “The Great Sperm Race”. We heard about his accomplishments as a scientist – an expert in fertility at the University of Sheffield who has been quoted thousands of times in the press – so he was more than qualified to talk about how scientists are included in the process of converting science into news.
In the Journalist’s corner was Emma Wilkinson, a freelance writer who works as a health correspondent for BBC online. Whilst not known for being the worst offender in these cases, we heard about the triage process of how stories are selected based on interest, and the specific training that science specialists have to help them produce the most balanced stories possible.
To kick things off, two stories were handed out to the audience to read: one considered a well-written story, and one a badly reported science story. Would the audience be able to tell which was the better? It seemed there was a sense that one story was clearly better represented than the other and was a bit of a scare story.
The sort of things you could look out for that would suggest whether a story was worth believing or not – like looking at the size of the samples used in studies – were talked about.
Chaired by our very own Martin Turner, questions were put to both Allan and Emma to state their opinions on a variety of subjects, before the floor opened up for questions from the audience. The debate was pretty lively and many different subjects were covered. One fairly contentious issue that many people seemed fairly passionate about was the tendency of newspapers stories being chopped down until they no longer represent what a new bit of research is actually about. Emma explained that this was due to the ever-changing nature of a newspaper’s layout – an editor wouldn’t know what their page will look like at the start of the day – and due to space constraints and changing news; one story might have to be cut harshly to fit another one it. Unfortunately it was unclear whether there could ever be a solution to this problem, given the fact that newspapers will always have a space constraint, however it was pointed out that websites don’t have this such issue.
Another major discussion point was stories being misrepresented in general by reporters. Allan said that he’d only been mis-quoted a handful of times, and only one that he was genuinely ashamed about, but thankfully a rebuttal had been printed. On the whole, though, it was agreed that the more involved scientists can get with the stories being written about their work, the less likely it is that they will be misrepresented, though stories being written from a certain angle may not be avoidable due to the fact that newspapers know their demographic and know how to write to them. On this subject, Emma had this to say: “It’s always really useful to get feedback on the journalism we produce and it’s great to have the opportunity to discuss in detail how the media works and the pressures and constraints that journalists are working under. I would encourage scientists to engage with the media wherever possible.”
Overall, the event was a success. Considering the sunshine outside, and the opportunities to catch some rare rays in these drab days of English spring, so many people turning up to sit inside and discuss science was amazing. Martin Turner, who was not only the chair for the debate but put a lot of time and effort in to organising the event, said, “I’m really pleased that the audience got so involved in the debate, there were a lot of good questions and comments which really showed that people care about the reliability and integrity of science reporting.”
So not only did the audience benefit from the chance to learn about the different factors that affect the resulting stories in newspapers, but there was also a small discussion on how scientists portray their research, and so did Allan, as a scientist, benefit from being involved in such an event? “It was interesting from my perspective to hear the many points of view from the audience about what good science reporting means to them. As someone who spends a lot of time explaining my subject area to journalists and film-makers, it is always useful to know whether or not as scientists we get the message right. On the whole I think we do, although it was clear to me that we need to encourage more scientists to rise to the challenge and get involved.”
So there you go – the over-arching conclusion was that there just aren’t enough scientists getting involved in the process, and those that do maybe aren’t doing it justice and could benefit from a better understanding of media so that they can better take control of their stories and interviews that they participate in.
If you unfortunately couldn’t make this event, but would like to hear about any further related events, then please email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know your views, or go start a discussion on our forums about any stories you’ve come across – we’ll be able to answer your questions, or find an expert who can!