(Updated 24 May to include a personal perspective from Adrian Bull)
Fiona took part in a debate session held at this year’s Science Communication Conference on Friday 17 May:
One message, many voices
During media frenzies like Fukushima government departments and arm’s length agencies tend to favour fewer voices in the media, communicating one clear and agreed message. However journalists prefer a plethora of expert opinion and seek out experts who disagree with the official line. Should science communicators be fighting to get one clear and consistent message out there at times of great public confusion, or should we encourage a range of different voices?
Pallab Ghosh, Science Correspondent, BBC;
Fiona Fox, Chief Executive, Science Media Centre;
Tim Jones, Head of News, Department of Health;
Simon Wilde, Associate Director, External Communications, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence
Chair: Adrian Bull, Director of External Relations, National Nuclear Laboratory
Tim and Simon argued for consistent clear messages, while Pallab and Fiona argued for multiple voices, even if those voices occasionally disagreed. Fiona’s argument went as follows, and a personal viewpoint from Adrian can be seen below…
It’s obvious the SMC would be for many voices because:
However, I do happen to believe in having as many expert voices out there as possible despite my vested interests, because:
Why do we have no choice?
Why is many voices good both for science and for the public understanding of science?
Why does not having vocal experts undermine public understanding of science and discourage other scientists’ from engaging?
In a public health crisis, scientists will often be called upon to advise government or other decision makers of what’s going on and the likely consequences of different responses. Their input is crucial, yet there are obviously other factors to be weighed in the overall decision-making process. Scientists (or their press officers) may sometimes fear that venturing into the media at such a time means one of two things. Either they will be pressed into premature conjecture of what the overall response should be. Or else the straight, scientific facts will end up mangled and twisted like a party balloon into whatever exaggerated shape the media have already chosen to portray.
However, I think there is a balance to be trodden. With some forethought and a smattering of practice and self-discipline, scientists should be able to be restrict themselves to robust factual information which will help to clarify the issue, without being drawn into speculation of how the facts should be interpreted. They can even be taught how it’s possible to say “I don’t know” without coming across as a poor scientist!
Things haven’t always worked like that in the past. Partly because these situations are inevitably times of great activity for the organisations concerned, the urgent “must do” crisis fixing can be higher priority than proper consideration of the “nice to do” communications. That can make self-censorship appear to be the best short-term option. However, with greater appreciation of the importance of prompt, accurate and clear communications to the public, and a better recognition amongst scientists of how they can separate fact and explanation from conjecture and speculation, we may see things improve in future.
One thing is clear – the damaging consequences of mixed messages, “poor science” and the temptation of certain media to scaremonger are now well enough recognised that there is a strong incentive for scientists to be out there early on, setting out the right information in the proper context for whatever follows.
(editing by Robin Bisson)