Research intelligence - The message is clearer now

Contrary to what many researchers think, the reporting of science in the UK is better than ever, Paul Jump hears

June 16, 2011

Credit: David Hancock/Alamy
Be prepared: The SMC helps researchers to present themselves and their stories to specialist journalists

"A lot of scientists who complain about the media aren't being evidence-based. They think of the terrible times (of scare stories over GM foods) and (assume) nothing has changed. They would never judge any other science issue on the basis of such sloppy thinking."

Fiona Fox is well placed to make such an observation. As director of the UK's Science Media Centre for the past decade, she has had an intimate view of science reporting.

"At meetings about science and the media, scientist after scientist talks about terrible headlines and claims that the media are interested only in sensationalising; but we (at the media centre) live and breathe this - if the reporting was awful, we would see it, but we don't," she told Times Higher Education.

The SMC was set up in 2000 in the wake of the press's perceived failure to report accurately on issues such as the safety of genetically modified foods.

The centre has stuck to its hard-news remit, disseminating comment from its expert database - 2,200 names and growing - on major science-related news stories such as the recent E. coli outbreak in Europe and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

The only significant innovation since then has been the establishment of regular press briefings. For these, four experts come to the centre's London premises, receive media training and then field questions on newsworthy topics.

Ms Fox admitted that things had gone awry, with scientists being misquoted or remarks misconstrued, but only on remarkably rare occasions. Most of the scientists who have taken part in briefings have become "converts for life", she said.

The key point for researchers who wish to get their message across in the media is to speak to a specialist science reporter, Ms Fox said. She attributed much of the improvement in science coverage to the recent proliferation of specialist science and environment correspondents in the UK media.

"We say (to researchers) come to the SMC, and we'll prepare you and get in the specialist journalists so that what comes out the other end will be good for science and society."

Generally, she said, inaccuracies creep into a news story only when it is written by a non-specialist, such as a political or consumer affairs reporter - as occurred with the GM foods scare stories.

These days, however, it is rare for science stories to be taken out of the hands of specialists when they become big news. "Now every time we do a GM briefing, it is the science correspondents who turn up."

Indeed, some science journalists seem to be permanent fixtures at SMC briefings - of which there can be several in a busy week. The original rationale for these was to "do more to set the news agenda". In this, they have been successful, with most briefings generating coverage in multiple media outlets. This achievement has, however, prompted concerns about a lack of variety and independence in science reporting.

Insisting that the SMC had not sought to be such a dominant force, Ms Fox noted that feeding the day-to-day hunger of modern editors for science stories left journalists with little time to get out and find their own stories, whereas SMC staff spent lots of time visiting universities and talking to scientists.

This story's a gas

As an example, she cited a trip she made in 2009 to Aberystwyth to meet Michael Abberton of what was then the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research. He told her about the grass he had genetically modified so that the cows that ate it produced less methane. She saw immediately that it had all the elements of a great news story.

"It couldn't have been better: climate change, GM and farting cows. I said I would bring him a journalist if it killed me, but I went to 10 and none would go."

Several months later, the SMC was organising a background briefing ahead of the Copenhagen climate change summit. Ms Fox took her chance to present Professor Abberton to journalists.

"The press went ballistic and weren't interested in anyone else. I learned that the pressures on the media today mean that we sometimes need to bring the story to journalists - preferably between 10am and 11am so they can write it up for their deadlines."

She said it would be "churlish" of her to regret that "some journalists spend a lot of their life in the SMC" even as she admitted that the centre would welcome, and support, more original reporting.

But she was also proud of the centre's role in helping to publicise issues that might otherwise not have come to light - she cited the 2009 briefing that allowed Rory Collins, professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford, to communicate his view that European Union bureaucracy was "strangling clinical trials in this country and killing people".

Such a platform had led colleagues in some of the sister organisations spawned by the SMC around the world to think of themselves primarily as journalists, she said. "I would not go that far, but we certainly do a bit of journalism by digging up the issues that scientists are really alarmed about."

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