Official: scientists no longer need fear the press

July 9, 2009

The days when science was blighted by a press interested only in "scare stories" are over, according to the Science Minister.

Most coverage of science by the media is now balanced, accurate and engaging, Lord Drayson said.

His comments came as he confirmed that public engagement would be measured and rewarded in the forthcoming research excellence framework (see above).

But some scientists who cite the "fear-fest" that characterised coverage of the genetic modification (GM) debate and the MMR vaccine as a reason for not working with the media are likely to be unimpressed.

In a debate staged at the World Conference of Science Journalists last week in London, Lord Drayson argued that the British media were the "best in the world" at covering science.

This new maturity was a result of a "period of reflection" after the GM and MMR furores, the formation of the Science Media Centre, which brings scientists and journalists together with the aim of helping scientists shape the news, and other factors.

"I believe the key to this is that science journalists are in charge of the story and not general journalists," he said.

The minister cited as positive examples of reporting the treatment of the human-animal hybrid embryo debate, the swine flu pandemic and the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider. He also cited figures showing that public trust in scientists was increasing.

"Sensational science reporting is fine as long as it is accurate and it is good science," he said. "We need good reporting that also transmits the 'wow factor' of science ... We need a society that is awestruck by science, not dumbstruck by it."

Lord Drayson's positive view was countered by John Martin, an expert in heart disease from University College London, who argued that the headlines and sensationalism in science journalism could have an "incredibly negative" effect.

He told of having to inform 160 people who had written to him in the hope of getting treatment that their expectations had been "raised inappropriately" by press accounts of his work.

Professor Martin argued that such sensationalism was the result of a "structural problem" in the media caused by profit motives driving the news agenda. He also accused some scientists of hyping their own stories to receive coverage.

"I think scientists are driven to overexaggerate the possibilities and their results in order to get limited funding," he said.

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