It's a question of interpretation

August 6, 1999

Accurate science reporting is to be encouraged, but Jon Turney is sceptical about a code of practice

Ah, if only journalists would get their facts straight. Then we would all know what we were talking about. Well, maybe. But is there any way of turning such tap-room wisdom into workable policy?

When it comes to science, both interested MPs and the Royal Society seem to think so. Both have called for a code of practice "to ensure that media coverage of science is factually accurate". But, sadly, neither seems to have much idea how such a code could be implemented. For science, of course, read bio-engineered crops.

The idea surfaced in a recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on the scientific advisory system and genetically modified foods.

Now, a group of fellows of the Royal Society has commended the idea. Its endorsement comes in a response to yet another select committee inquiry. This time it is an investigation by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee into "science and society", or in other words, GM foods.

The fellows elaborate: "We believe that journalists have a responsibility to provide accurate and complete information when presenting scientific issues."

There are several fundamental misunderstandings about journalism here. Of course factual statements in the media should be accurate. But reporting consists largely of reporting what someone has written or said, however fatuous it may be. And news is intensely selective. Journalists are not employed to reproduce papers from Nature in their entirety, nor do readers and viewers expect them to.

To start with, most of the scientific issues that make news are controversial. Any journalist can find reputable scientists with what they regard as reasonable grounds for supposing that HIV does not cause Aids or that BSE is not caused by prions. On GM foods, it is just as easy to find experts who will counsel caution because there is no real science of predictive ecology.

The Royal Society's solution is to suggest that those consulted should be "credible" scientists. But credibility is not a once-and-for-all quality, objectively measurable. It has to be continually renegotiated. A code of practice could only be enforced by a group of super-

experts, who would decide which scientists were "credible" and which were not. These judgements are the stuff of everyday scientific conversation, but there is no final arbiter. Who decides whether the super-experts are credible?

The impulse to give experts some special role in regulating media debate is also fuelled by a misleadingly simple view of media consumers. Reactions to scientific claims and counter-claims are not straightforward responses to a single story, they are the long-term result of a whole complex of ideas, inferences and evaluation.

The society's model of a "rational" debate is fanciful, but the fellows should take heart from the polls that show that, while trust in scientists on some issues has declined, on most questions they are still trusted more than journalists. And they should recognise that in a democratic media culture scientists, like everyone else, must take the rough with the smooth.

Jon Turney teaches science communication at University College London.

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