Select Committee on Science and Technology Third Report


CHAPTER 7: SCIENCE AND THE MEDIA

  7.1  Once they leave school, most people get most of their information about science from TV and the newspapers (May Q 8, Briggs Q 144, MORI p 162). It is often assumed that newspaper editors and key broadcasters either reflect or shape the attitudes of the public. But they cannot reflect in a headline or soundbite the attitudes of their entire heterogeneous audience; and the audience is as critical of the media as of any other authoritative voice (Irwin Q 80, Turney Q 92, and see the survey evidence noted in Chapter 2). Nonetheless how the media handle science is very important, and has been a major theme of our inquiry.

  7.2  Many scientists are convinced that science is treated badly by the media (e.g. Davies p 279, UKLSC p 416). They are of course not the only group in the public eye to believe that the media have it in for them; actors, doctors, civil servants, politicians and many other groups feel the same, when the cherished freedom of the British press works against them. The question is, whether there is anything about science which makes it different in this respect.

What is science journalism?

  7.3  To understand the relationship between science and the media, it is important to make some distinctions. Science journalism comes in three kinds. First, there is the specialist scientific press. This is written by scientists for scientists, and is not the subject of this report; our remarks concern the other two.

  7.4  Science writing in the general press, and science coverage in broadcasting, come in two kinds. First, there is the work of science journalists, specialist correspondents writing for the inside pages or for specialist science programmes. Their work is usually the product of some journalistic research (Boycott Q 714). Science journalists value their reputation for accuracy, and often go to some trouble to get the story right.

  7.5  Second, there is the work of non-scientific correspondents, whether news staff, politics or environment specialists, who may find themselves writing about science (British Council Q 533). What may have started as a science story, presented with care by a specialist science writer, may become a news story, subject to a very different set of values and criteria. Alternatively a news story may throw up a science angle. Either way, scientific material is then handled by the news staff, often with no further involvement by the science team.

  7.6  We receive a detailed account of the relationship between the politics and science staffs on the Express from the Editor, Rosie Boycott, and the Science Editor, Michael Hanlon (QQ 708-713). They told us that, because of the Editor's strong personal interest in science issues, relations between the science and editorial teams on that particular newspaper are currently quite close; but this situation evidently does not pertain in all media organisations.

Science journalism in the United Kingdom today

  7.7  It is often observed that most journalists who write about science are not themselves scientists. Yet we have found that popular science journalism in this country is currently thriving, in response to the high level of public interest noted in Chapter 2. Over the last 10 years the number of science correspondents in the general press has risen (Briggs Q 144, Radford Q 190, Connor Q 194)—though, according to a report of November 1997 commissioned by the Scottish Science Trust (p 408), three leading French newspapers had a total of 17 science journalists, while The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent had between them only 10. The number of people employed making science programmes for the BBC has doubled in recent years (Q 301); the BBC is extending science beyond science programmes into mainstream news and current affairs programmes (May Q 30, Briggs Q 144); and in the course of our inquiry a scientist was added to the staff of the Today programme. Though Sir David Weatherall rates the overall quality poor, at least in comparison with the best in the USA (p 421), we found that most others, including Sir Robert May, rate it very high (May Q 33, UKLSC p 416, Turney Q 98).

  7.8  Dr John Turney of University College London, former science editor of the Times Higher Educational Supplement, is concerned that high-quality science TV may suffer in the approaching era of digital TV, as multiplication of channels fragments audiences and resources (Q 98). The National Consumer Council observed that, even if standards remain high, the audience for each channel and programme is likely to shrink (Q 604). Sir David Attenborough (QQ 382, 402) warned against increasing "ghettoisation", and said, "If our concern is not necessarily how we preach to the converted but how we spread our net more widelythen we should beware of these coming developments". We share Sir David's concern.

  7.9  In this context, we were interested by the evidence of Sir Harold Kroto FRS, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 (p 79). Sir Harold has established the Vega Science Trust, which is working to create science TV programmes of the highest quality for small but, he hopes, influential audiences.

  7.10  The United Kingdom may be blessed with large numbers of talented science journalists. Our witnesses, however, have explained to us that this does not lead automatically to reams of effective information about science, for a number of reasons.

  7.11  First, science journalists are first and foremost journalists, not educators. Their primary aim, as with any journalist, is to get stories into the paper or programme, in fierce competition with other journalists (Turney Q 114; Radford QQ 175, 185; Weatherall p 421).

  7.12  What constitutes a "story" may not be what the originators of the material intended. For example, Tim Radford, science editor of the Guardian, tells a story of a professor who held a press briefing on phase changes at the boundary between the earth's mantle and its core. It emerged that his experiments involved a 6 inch naval gun mounted in the laboratory; and he spent the rest of the briefing fielding questions about the gun. "It was an exquisite example of the clash of two cultures. He actually wanted to tell us about the science of the centre of the earth. We were after a story, which is something entirely different."

  7.13  As a further example, as noted above, although several newspapers and broadcasters sent correspondents to the recent Consensus Conference on Nuclear Waste, and although the specialist press gave it extensive coverage, none of the national press found a "story" there at all (Connor Q 227). This was perhaps because, as was of course the intention, the conference consisted of constructive dialogue rather than confrontation.

  7.14  Second, the author of a story does not control how it may appear in print. Headlines are written by a sub-editor, who may not understand the story, and may put some "spin" on the headline in order to attract readers (Turney Q 101, Radford QQ 176-180, Hanlon Q 705). Editorial staff may also interfere with a science journalist's copy, either in the interests of space, or, particularly in tabloid newspapers, to serve some editorial policy or campaign (Turney Q 102, Radford Q 194, Boycott Q 761).

  7.15  These problems are compounded when a science story becomes news, because science and news are "a poor fit" (Turney Q 109). Newsrooms deal in simplified stories put together in haste, preferably with two opposing sides or views. Professor Ian Fells FREng, winner of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday Award for contributing to the public understanding of science in 1994, recalls being told by a Radio 1 news producer before a live appearance, "20 seconds, professor, and no long words". The scientific process is not well suited to this injunction (May Q 33, Turney Q 95, Connor Q 225).

  7.16  One common consequence is that the media will give equal weight to the scientific consensus and to a minority view, whether in the interest of balance as they see it, or simply because confrontation makes good copy (R Soc p 45). We have heard vehement criticism of this practice (e.g. Worcester Q 591).

  7.17  Science represents for the media not only a strand of specialist content and an occasional input to news. It is also a repository of images drawn on by the whole range of media output, including entertainment and even advertising; and too often those images are negative. As the PPARC puts it (p 377), there is "a tendency for the more popular media to present science as impenetrable, nerdy or comic". The Engineering Council agrees (p 285): "The images of the scientist as a mad boffin and the engineer as a spanner-wielding grease monkey in overalls are those that prevail". On the other hand, the learned societies which make up the United Kingdom Life Sciences Committee reckoned this among the least important of the factors contributing to the current crisis of confidence, a long way behind the sensationalism noted above (p 417).

  7.18  In addition to negative images of real science, the media purvey an exotic range of material on and beyond the fringes of scientific respectability: horoscopes, the "paranormal", and much of what appears under the banner of health. Orthodox scientists must of course be wary of decrying the unorthodox, since history teaches how easily their positions may be reversed. However, as the Royal Astronomical Society puts it, too much of this sort of thing "tends to weaken in the public mind the validity of the rational approach to problems" (p 391).

  7.19  Above all, in many cases, as noted in Chapters 2 and 3 above in the context of public attitudes, science is only part of the story (Turney Q 96, COPUS QQ 164-9, Radford Q 182). The main thrust of the story may be anything from a perceived absence of openness or integrity in government to the ethics of "interfering with nature" or the economics of farming in the Third World. None of these is primarily a scientific issue; yet all of them have been major themes in the coverage of GM crops and foods.

GM food on the front page

  7.20  The controversy over GM crops and foods put science on the front pages of the newspapers to an unusual extent for most of 1999. Media handling of the story has been fiercely criticised: Sir Robert May told us that newspapers have had "an extraordinarily one-sided presentation of the facts" (Q 15). Tim Radford urged the scientific community to be less defensive about this, and to see it as a "wonderful chance" to educate the public about this important new technology (QQ 182-6, 219).

  7.21  We have collaborated with POST to support a research project to examine in detail media coverage of the GM food issue between January and June 1999. The work was conducted by Nicola Lindsey at the Science Museum, under the supervision of our Adviser John Durant, and we are grateful to both of them for a thorough and revealing survey. Their findings are summarised in Appendix 5. The full report of the project will shortly be published by POST. In November we had the opportunity to put the project's findings to Miss Boycott and Mr Hanlon, whose newspaper played a leading role in the events under review (QQ 728-769).

  7.22  The study reveals that, around February 1999, some newspaper editors perceived a widening gap between, on the one hand, government policy towards GM crops and food and commercial practice, and on the other hand public attitudes, and proceeded to exploit it by mounting a campaign. In the case of the two most strident campaigners, the Daily Mail and the Express, this was evidently part of a circulation war.

  7.23  One of the most striking findings of the study is that the behaviour of those newspapers which campaigned on the issue was markedly different from that of those which did not. For instance, throughout the debate, the campaigners devoted a smaller share of their total coverage of GM issues to news, and a larger share to commentary, suggesting that "the campaigning newspapers helped to drive the 'Great GM Food Debate', working to 'set the agenda' while the non-campaigning newspapers simply followed that agenda by reporting the latest twists and turns in the debate". The differences were greater than any between "broadsheets" and "tabloids".

  7.24  Analysis starkly illustrates the third kind of science journalism identified above: science stories written by non-specialists. Specialist science correspondents never contributed more than 15 per cent of the total news coverage at any stage during the period. During the crucial two days in February 1999 (11th and 12th) when the GM food story broke, in the 11 national newspapers surveyed—

  7.25  The survey also reveals how, in this case, scientific and non-scientific aspects of the issue were intertwined. Besides the science and safety of GM crops and food, angles of the story treated by the media included labelling of consumer products, the merits of intensive and organic farming, the role of multinational corporations, the global agricultural economy, and the impartiality of the Government and its Ministers.

Conclusion

  7.26  We conclude that science journalism is currently flourishing in the United Kingdom. There are however problems with the handling of the science angles of news stories by journalists who are not specialist scientific correspondents. We agree with Stephen Cox, Executive Secretary to the Royal Society, who described this as "the great challenge" (Q 144). This challenge can be met in two ways: by changing the behaviour of the media, and by changing the behaviour of scientists in dealing with the media. We consider each of these approaches in turn.

Guidelines for the media in dealing with science

  7.27  Some of our witnesses look to the media to put their house in order. The Royal Society would like the BBC to re-establish its scientific consultative group, and other media organisations to set up similar groups (p 44)[65]. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) proposes a prize, sponsored by Government and industry, for "objective, balanced and scientifically accurate reporting" (p 275)[66]. Save British Science demands that science must receive more exposure in news and current affairs, in order to be perceived "more for what it is—a part of everyday life"; that the panels of current affairs discussion programmes should include more scientists; that scientists in fiction should be more realistic; that there should be more and better coverage of the process of science; and that, when scientists disagree, this should be presented as a necessary part of the process rather than as an argument (p 399).

  7.28  At one extreme of this argument, the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons has recommended[67] that

    "media coverage of scientific matters should be governed by a Code of Practice which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission."

  7.29  The Royal Society supports this proposal (p 44); so does SmithKline Beecham (p 413). On the other hand, Steve Connor, science editor of the Independent (QQ 215-8), observed that in many cases, including in his opinion one of the two cited by the Commons Committee, a story may be confusing, misleading and incomplete without being factually inaccurate. He also pointed out that Clauses 1 and 2 of the Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission already require that reporting be accurate, and that inaccuracies be corrected.

  7.30  We put this to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). They told us (p 378) that they received 20 complaints about science stories in 1998-99, split evenly between national newspapers and other print media. In some of these cases the story was clearly inaccurate; in each of these cases, the paper concerned offered a correction or apology. The PCC agrees with Mr Connor that such cases can be dealt with adequately under the general Code, without requiring a special Code for science. However it is happy to consider issuing guidance notes to editors on science stories, as it has on other subjects.

  7.31  There are things which might usefully be said in a note of guidance from the PCC. The Royal Society has published some suggestions, covering the issues of accuracy, credibility, balance, uncertainty, legitimacy, advice and responsibility (see Box 3). We commend these guidelines, and we urge the PCC to adopt and promulgate them. In doing so, the PCC should make it clear that they are aimed not just at specialist science correspondents, but at all journalists who find themselves dealing with science, including those on the news desk.

  7.32  We would add just three comments of our own:

  • Uncertainty Writers, and particularly sub-editors and headline-writers, should be encouraged to distinguish between proven possibilities (e.g. that smoking cigarettes may lead to lung cancer) and unproven possibilities (e.g. that there may be life on Mars). Failure to make this distinction is well illustrated by the Express headline of 18 February MUTANT CROPS COULD KILL YOU, where the unproven possibility that antibiotic resistance could be transmitted to human pathogens through genetic modification of food crops was presented in the most lurid terms. The Editor of the Express admitted to us that this particular headline was "probablyracked up to make it a good headline", and that it was "probably pushing it quite far" (QQ 745, 748).
  • Risk Particular care should be taken with the word "safe". As we observed in Chapter 4 above, some risks are acceptable, others are not, and much depends on circumstances and subjective factors. The very question "Is it safe?" is itself irresponsible, since it conveys the misleading impression that absolute safety is achievable. It also defeats its own purpose, since the only possible answer is "No". A better question is "How dangerous is it?" or "Is it safe enough?"
  • Responsibility While the Royal Society are right to urge scientists to deal responsibly with the media, journalists have an equal duty to deal responsibly with scientists and scientific material. They should bear in mind that many scientists are unfamiliar with the conventions of journalism; and that their readers may have particular difficulty in forming their own judgment of a story when the subject-matter is scientific.

  7.33  Though we welcome and endorse these guidelines, the importance of accuracy in reporting must not be overstated. Mistakes of fact are bound to be made, given the very short deadlines to which journalists work. Gross inaccuracy is usually corrected, though a correction seldom carries as much weight as the original mistake. Much more significant than factual accuracy is the way in which the facts are used, by both writer and reader. It is hard to see how these could be regulated in a country where speech and thought are free.

  7.34  On the basis of the evidence, and of our own experience, we are inclined to agree with Dr Turney: "In a democratic media culture scientists have to learn to take the rough with the smooth like everybody else" (Q 109). The current high level of media interest in science-related issues is much to be welcomed. While it sometimes makes for public dialogue in terms which are unsatisfactory to some of the players, this is still much better than no dialogue at all. Science cannot expect special treatment from the media, or a special Code of Practice, any more than economics, the law, the fine arts or any of the many special subjects which may find their way onto the front page. Scientists must indeed take the rough with the smooth, and learn to work with the media as they are.


Box 3

Guidance for editors: The Royal Society's recommendations
1Accuracy. Clause 1(i) of the PCC Code states that "newspapers and periodicals must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material". Clear guidance should be given on what needs to be done to ensure accuracy. Editors must be able to demonstrate that the necessary steps have been taken.
2Credibility. Journalists must make every effort to establish the credibility of scientists and their work. They should note that a scientist's professional credibility may be restricted to the area of science in which he or she has specialised. Eloquence is no substitute for expertise in the provision of scientific opinion. This means that journalists must be sufficiently informed about the science behind a story if they are to establish the credibility of an interviewee. To assist the media in this respect, the Royal Society plans to publish a directory that provides a list of 'media-friendly' scientists and their areas of expertise.
3Balance. Newspapers may suppose that they have produced 'balanced' reports by quoting opposing views from scientists about a particular issue. While the intention may be to present both sides of an argument, a majority view on that matter may be held within the scientific community, and the opposing view is held by only a quixotic minority of individuals. Although the majority view may occasionally prove to be incorrect at a later date, such instances are exceptions rather than the rule. While we appreciate that it may be difficult for journalists to take a poll of scientific views, it is in the public interest that journalists identify, whenever possible, a majority view.
4Uncertainty. There are many emerging areas of science that are subject to uncertainty. Although it is sometimes difficult to convey the scale of this uncertainty, journalists should resist the temptation to quote the most sensational of alternative interpretations as though it were fact. The scientific community must convey a sense of alternative interpretations in an accurate and meaningful way. Scientists and journalists should engage in a dialogue about how such uncertainties in science should be presented. Furthermore, journalists should be wary of regarding uncertainty about a scientific issue as an indication that all views, no matter how unorthodox, have the same legitimacy. As the President of the Royal Society noted in his 1998 Anniversary Address: "The fact that, at a particular time, science cannot provide an answer to a problem does not mean that anything is possible. There are limits provided by existing knowledge."
5Legitimacy. Some of the means to help journalists assess the legitimacy of scientific claims are already in place. A cornerstone of the quality assurance process in science is that new theories and experimental results have been exposed to peer review. Although this process is not infallible, it is a good indicator of whether or not a piece of research has been conducted properly and the conclusions drawn are justified. Journalists should be encouraged to treat with healthy scepticism work that has not been approved through peer review, including information that can be accessed through the internet.
6Advice. The key point is that journalists must have access to authoritative advice about the credibility and legitimacy of the science that they wish to report. Most national newspapers have specialist science journalists. The science staff should be consulted about science stories covered by colleagues who are not scientists.
7Responsibility. Although it is important for scientists to communicate via the media with the public about their work, the scientific community must act responsibly when dealing with journalists. Some scientists do seek publicity for work that furthers their careers, and may make exaggerated claims about the significance of scientific 'breakthroughs'. It is not in the public interest for the media to be used in this way. We believe that the scientific community should work with the media to develop mechanisms through which journalists can quickly establish the authenticity of a scientific story. These could involve scientific advisers who can offer well-informed guidance within the timescales demanded by modern journalistic practice.


Recommendations for scientists dealing with the media

  7.35  If the media are not to be coerced, what can the scientific community do to limit the damage and help them to cover science issues more effectively? One way, as discussed in the previous chapter, is to work on the audience while it is still at school. Indeed, in the view of Sir David Attenborough, this is the only way (Q 385). The authors of Beyond 2000 consider that it should be an explicit aim of the school science curriculum to enable pupils "to understand, and respond critically to, media reports of issues with a science component". But there is also scope for working directly on the science-media interface, from the side of science. Considerable progress has been made in this area with the help of COPUS; there is further to go, and much to be learned from best practice in the USA.

  7.36  Some witnesses would like to see the scientist turn journalist, and take the war into the enemy's camp. Sir Robert May would like to see more people with a science background move into journalism (Q 33). Dr Turney (Q 109) observes that there are currently plenty of science postgraduates looking for work outside science; some may become science correspondents, but few will make it into news journalism.

  7.37  If scientists are not to become journalists, they can at least get better at dealing with journalists. As noted in Chapter 3 above, universities and Research Councils offer media training for research scientists. Written guidance is also available, including a concise and helpful note issued by the Royal Society as we finalised this report, which we reproduce in Box 4.

  7.38  COPUS seeks to cultivate "an open and positive communications culture in the academic community" (Q 163). As noted above, the academic community's attitude to public-understanding activities in general has improved, and what Tim Radford called the "old high-table gulf" (Q 176) is narrowing; but it has further to go. At present, we are told, journalists wanting comment from a scientist are more likely to dial a US university than one in the United Kingdom, because they are more likely to receive a rapid and useful response (cp Connor Q 233, Hanlon Q 715)—though US journalists told us that US scientists are becoming less helpful because of an increase in commercial sponsorship of research. British scientists may currently be more than usually wary of dealing with the media, for fear of what Sara Ramsden, commissioning editor for science programmes on Channel 4, referred to as "tabloid crucifixion" (Q 321).

  7.39  As Dr Turney explained to us, journalists like to work with contacts whom they know (Q 109, cp Connor Q 234). According to Mr Radford, the cadre of scientists with "media savvy" is in fact expanding (Q 176). So too, however, are the ranks of scientists with bad experiences of dealings with the media, who may be fearful of engaging with them again. In Sir Robert May's view (Q 33), and that of Dr Farmelo of the Science Museum (Q 266), the media are too reliant on a small number of highly articulate spokesmen for science. They would like the scientific community to encourage a larger and more diverse range of scientists to come forward and face the press. The Royal Society plans to publish a directory of "media-friendly" scientists (see Box 3).

  7.40  COPUS sees a need for people or organisations which have the skills to mediate between scientists and non-scientific journalists (Q 130). This need has been very apparent in the controversy over GM foods. Most universities and research institutes have a press officer, but we gather that the quality of their service is very variable (Hanlon Q 720). The BAAS would like academic press officers to develop their "unfulfilled potential", putting out much more information about research, and training researchers in media skills (p 48). They might also aim for more rapid identification of emerging issues, to avoid being put on the defensive by better-prepared lobbyists (Q 161)[68]. In these ways they would perform at local level some of the roles envisaged for the new national institution discussed at the end of Chapter 5.

  7.41  COPUS arranges media fellowships, whereby a scientist spends a few weeks shadowing a journalist. Sir Robert May would like to see more of these (Q 33). Tim Radford agrees (Q 233). On the other hand, Dr Turney (Q 109) believes that the scope for expanding the scheme may be limited.

  7.42  Improving their media interface will cost universities money (Q 167). They will be encouraged to shift resources into this field if their efforts are rewarded by the HEFCs, as suggested in Chapter 3 above.

  7.43  AlphaGalileo is an Internet site[69] providing resources for journalists interested in scientific research around Europe. It is run by the BAAS, with support from the OST, the French government, British and French Research Councils, Euroscience, the Wellcome Trust, the Novartis Foundation and the European Science Foundation. It was launched in 1998, and is currently still at the pilot stage, but it aspires to rival the US EurekAlert! Site established in 1996 and run by the AAAS. The site holds press releases, event details, and an address book of researchers and press officers. AlphaGalileo does not peer-review contributions, but contributors (and journalists) are required to provide references.

  7.44  The science editor of the Express told us that he finds EurekAlert! "essential" (Q 725), but that at present AlphaGalileo is less efficient. Cambridge University Press describes AlphaGalileo as "a splendid United Kingdom initiative which has been widely praised" (p 273). The BAAS comments, "AlphaGalileohas been widely welcomed by both providers and users of information in the United Kingdom and other European countries. A problem that may have discouraged universities from issuing press notices on research results and science issues is the difficulty of maintaining well-targeted distribution lists for a range of specialist subjects. AlphaGalileo helps to tackle this" (p 49).

  7.45  The BAAS adds, "Securing its long-term future is an urgent priority." Unlike EurekAlert!, which is maintained by fees from contributors, AlphaGalileo's services are free to contributors and journalists. AlphaGalileo hopes for support from the European Union (Briggs Q 804). We recommend that the Government should do whatever they can to ensure that this is forthcoming.

Conclusion

  7.46  All the ideas and approaches noted above, whereby the scientific community might help non-specialists in the media to cover scientific stories more satisfactorily, have value, and we commend them all. We agree with COPUS: the culture of United Kingdom science needs a sea-change, in favour of open and positive communication with the media. This will require training and resources; above all it will require leadership, which the members of the COPUS institutions are well placed to provide. It will inevitably involve occasional embarrassment or frustration. But, if it succeeds, it will pay for itself many times over in renewed public trust.



Box 4

Royal Society's guidelines for scientists working with the media

1Perspective When journalists contact you, think carefully about who they represent and how this will affect the way in which they treat your work. For instance, a daily broadsheet newspaper will have a different perspective from a popular tabloid. A journalist from a glossy magazine may have the time to visit your workplace, but might expect you to spend half a day with a photographer. A zoo radio show may not give your ideas the same respect, or airing, as Radio Four's 'Today' programme.
2Deadlines Respect the very real deadlines to which journalists have to work. Try to respond promptly to media enquiries—if they say they need information in a couple of hours, they usually mean it. If you offer to find the necessary information for journalists, be sure that you can meet their deadlines.
3Competition News stories about science have to compete against the other stories that appear each day. A science correspondent or general news reporter must make a case to the news editor, who will make the final decision about whether a science story should receive coverage after the story has been written and filed, alongside dozens of others, by the deadline. To give your story the best chance of appearing, think about angles, photographs, graphics, colour and background that can help the reporter to win over the editor.
4Content Science stories often have to appeal to an intelligent audience or readership that may have little knowledge of science. Explain your work in simple, everyday language and avoid using jargon—imagine you are trying to explain it to a friend over a drink, for example. If you have to use a technical term, explain what it means. Think imaginatively about the possible implications and applications of your work. When describing the results of your research, highlight what is novel or unexpected about the findings. Highlight other notable features of your project that might add personal interest or a sense of the bizarre, for example. Point out what impact your work might have on the audience or readership, and be prepared to talk about the wider implications, such as ethics or funding issues.
5Approach Many print and broadcast media have specialist staff who are very good at reporting science stories. In some cases, you may be contacted by other staff who do not have a background in science. However, even reporters who have a PhD in a science subject are unlikely to know much about your specific area, so you should assume that they are not acquainted with your field of work. Rather than giving them some references to consult in a library, it is much more helpful to offer a quick explanation. Think of a couple of sentences that provide a lucid and succinct overview of your work. Do not be patronising.
6Responsibility Scientists have a duty to act responsibly when dealing with the media. Avoid the temptation to exaggerate the significance of your work. Refer to similar work by your peers to put your research in context. Although a reporter may want a straightforward yes or no answer, don't be pressurised into making a response that you will later regret. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, say so. Never lie.
7Attribution Try to avoid saying "No comment". If a journalists sense that you are trying to hide some facts, they have a responsibility to find these out from another source. Be very careful about talking 'off the record'. If you have established a degree of trust with a particular journalist, he or she may use you as a sounding board for news events, or for an 'off the record' opinion about somebody else's work. But remember that even if such information is unattributed, it is often obvious who supplied it. The simple rule is: if you don't want it to be reported, don't mention it.
8Authenticity Scientists also have a responsibility to help journalists to establish the authenticity of a story. Let a journalist know if your work has been subject to peer review, for instance by submission to a journal, or some other quality control mechanism.
9Credibility Be honest about your competence and credibility when it comes to commenting on a particular issue. Although you may have opinions about a range of topics, you should make clear to a journalist what your direct area of expertise is, and whether your comments lie outside it. Also remember, however, that journalists work to tight deadlines, so you could still offer invaluable help even if your expertise is not exactly what is required, perhaps by suggesting the names of other scientists who work in a relevant field.
10Quotes In most cases, there will not be enough time for you to check a news or feature story before it is broadcast or printed. Most journalists will, however, respect a request to check quotes before they are used, but make sure that this is agreed from the outset. Remember that journalists working to a daily deadline will only have a narrow window—sometimes a few minutes—to check quotes, so try to make sure that you are easy to contact. Don't be surprised if the outcome of a half-hour interview is often just one or two short quotes.
11Interviews If you are asked for an interview, advance preparation will improve your performance. Try to find out what angle the journalist will adopt and what sorts of questions you will be asked. For the broadcast media, find out if the interview will be taped or live and whether you will be participating in a panel discussion or just providing a short soundbite for the news.
12Collaboration If you are collaborating with other researchers, you should try to agree beforehand what to say if journalists contact you. But remember that unlike technical journals, there is no onus on journalists to mention every researcher and institution that is involved in a project. Be reasonable about requests to give appropriate credit—remember the constraints on the availability of column inches or air time.
13Contacts Think laterally when dealing with the media. If a print journalist contacts you for a comment about a 'breaking' story, you could offer to write an opinion piece if time and space allow. If he or she agrees, be sure at the outset to agree on the terms and conditions, including copyright and fees. If journalists do approach you, make a note of their full contact details—you never know when you may have a story that you can take to them.
14Corrections If, when a story appears, you have been misquoted or there is a serious factual error, you should write to the journalist, setting out your concerns. For the printed media, you can also write to clarify matters and ask for it to be printed on a letters page, but make your contribution brief, punchy and entertaining. If you are unable to achieve a satisfactory resolution, then write to the editor to whom the journalist reports. Such action is usually sufficient to obtain corrections. If, however, you are still not satisfied with the outcome, you should contact the relevant media 'watchdog', such as the Press Complaints Commission or the Broadcasting Standards Commission.





65  
The BBC has explained to us why it disbanded this group, and its new approach to external advice and review (p 263). Back

66   There is an annual competition for the Glaxo Wellcome/Association of British Science Writers Awards for Science Writers. Categories include "Best feature on a science subject in a national or regional newspaper", "Best news item on a science subject", and "Best communication of science in a non-science context". Back

67   Scientific Advisory System: Genetically Modified Foods, 1st Report 1998-99, HC 286, para 29. Back

68   The launch of the Government's Public Consultation on the Biosciences in December 1998 did not prevent the media storm around GM foods which began in February 1999. Back

69   www.alphagalileo.org Back


 
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