This article originally appeared on the Guardian website here.
If anyone wonders why the Science Media Centre gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, they need look no further than a small news story this week reporting that the uptake of the MMR vaccine has finally recovered from the media frenzy of 14 years ago that wrongly linked the jab to an increase in autism. The fact that we have seen the return of thousands of cases of childhood measles, and even some deaths, illustrates why I stood in front of Lord Justice Leveson to argue that poor science reporting can damage the public interest every bit as much as hacking the phones of celebrities or crime victims.
In some ways summoning up the spectre of MMR is misleading. The media was not solely responsible for the scare and much has changed for the better in those 14 years. The UK has some of the best specialist science reporters in the world and the appetite for science in newsrooms allows great journalists to convey complicated, scary and messy new science to a mass audience on a daily basis. But it’s also important to acknowledge that aspects of the culture and practise in newsrooms that delivered the MMR scare do still raise their head – including the tendency to overstate a claim made by one expert in a single small study; the reluctance to ruin a great scare story by placing it in its wider more reassuring context; and the journalistic addiction to balance which often conveys a scientific divide where there is none.
It was these points that I elaborated on when called in front of Leveson last year. It was a welcome opportunity to offer a more ambitious vision of good science coverage. I dared to suggest that we should change the practise of non-specialist subeditors writing the headlines long after the science reporter has left, a practise which on the day of my evidence had led to a carefully written report on a tiny safety trial of stem cells for macular degeneration being wrongly headlined “Once they were blind, now they can see”.
And I found common ground with other witnesses at Leveson while talking about the need for redress – not so much for individuals smeared by the media but for the wider public who believed stories that turned out not to be true. Tongue in cheek, I recommended an experiment proposed by a US science writer who suggested that those papers that have regularly splashed with stories of “a cure for” or “a breakthrough in” cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease be invited to do a follow-up on how many “cures” we actually got. And I even got to pass on the outrage of many scientists at a culture that apparently allows the UK’s best known columnists to enjoy immunity from the normal rules about accuracy – with the science of climate change in particular falling prey to opinion pieces with little regard for the truth.
To emphasise my point that not that much needs to be fixed to dramatically raise standards of science reporting, I made a rather rash claim. I told Leveson that, in my view, if you locked a group of the best scientists in a room with the main science journalists it would not take them long to come up with a list of guidelines on good science reporting. I mentioned a few on the spot, like journalists emphasising the size of the study, including the important caveats, reporting risk in absolute numbers as well as percentages and providing a realistic time frame for new research findings moving from a lab to a real live treatment.
In the event, Leveson called my bluff and asked for the delivery of said guidelines and he writes in the report that they are “commendable for their utility as well as their succinctness”. He also suggests that any new regulator should “bear them closely in mind”.
Like with so much about this report I imagine there will be different views in the scientific community about Leveson. I am sure that many scientists will be disappointed that there is not more of an iron glove behind Leveson’s mild bouquet for our proposed guidelines, but the journalists who helped us to draft them believe they are actually more likely to be received warmly by newsdesks precisely because they have not been imposed from on high.
Scientists, like everyone else, will now have to wait to see whether this inquiry changes anything about the way newspapers operate, but when it comes to the future of the press – free or otherwise – there is an elephant in the room. The kind of science reporting that Leveson extols can only be done by newspapers with the resources to keep their existing specialist reporters, and right now the declining sales of newspapers is as much of a threat to good science coverage as sloppy standards or editorial hysteria. No one has come up with a good avoidance strategy for this collision course, and journalistic quality will be an indisputable casualty.