By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
I don’t know of a single fake news story in science or health. Not one – or not in national news media anyway. Yet everywhere I go people are discussing this new scourge, even in science and media circles where fake news is a non-issue.
The best description of this new phenomenon I have heard yet came from Daniel Finkelstein in the Times, “Fake news is a deliberate act of forgery. It presents as a fact, as news, something that has not happened at all. It uses all the tools at the forger’s disposal to present as true something that is utterly false. “
There are relatively few examples of actual fake news, even in politics, which possibly explains why so many articles reference just two famous cases, in which Pope Francis was reported to have called on Catholics to vote for Trump and the news that Hilary Clinton was running a sex ring from a pizza parlour.
Yet multiple articles, broadcast discussions and meetings have been dedicated to the topic. Trump of course has used the term to attack the reporting he doesn’t like (who can forget the “you are fake news” to the hapless CNN reporter trying to ask a question). But it’s not just Trump who is misusing the term. Suddenly familiar discussions about the problems with science reporting are coming under the banner of fake news.
As I said to the Leveson inquiry and in multiple talks and blogs there remain some real problems in science reporting and lots of people are trying to tackle them. Sensational headlines written by overzealous subbies; giving equal weight to the mavericks and the scientific consensus; and over claiming for weak and preliminary studies, all combine to mislead the public about where the truth really lies. And sometimes, it really matters. We need to know the truth about the risks of statins, e-cigs and climate change. But none of that is fake news being manufactured in the bedrooms of Macedonian teenagers looking to make money from programmatic digital adverts.
Even those that concede the term is being misused are still happily reclaiming it to describe poor science reporting that they stress can do as much harm to the public as manufactured news. Fake news has become the term of choice to describe the failures of science reporting on issues like homeopathy, climategate and even MMR. But this feels lazy to me. MMR was a toxic mix of lots of different problems in science and journalism. A scientist who went way beyond the published paper at a press conference; a failure of the journal’s peer review system; the media’s love of a lone maverick pitted against the government and medical establishment; the media’s love of ‘balance’ in a row which made it look like doctors were evenly divided… While we could debate whether there could be another MMR today, I have argued that many of the conditions for a similar scare story persist. But retrospectively framing the MMR saga as fake news misses the point: it was fraud, bad science, misleading, dangerous even – but it wasn’t a story made up by the media. More importantly we won’t avoid another one by finding the kind of ‘technical fix’ for fake news being discussed by governments and digital media companies. On the down side, it is just more complicated than that. On the up side, the answers lie much closer to home.
It’s not even true to label all bad science stories as bad journalism. There are several links in the chain of every science story and things can and do go wrong at each stage. We know bad science and bad science media relations – as well as bad reporting – exist. In response to a bizarre infographic pouring scorn on science reporting (“If journalism as a whole is bad (and it is), science journalism is even worse”), a Nature editorial pointed out that now is perhaps not a great time for people to be highlighting bad journalism when scientists concerned about research integrity are demonstrating that 47 out of 53 published studies on cancer research could not be reproduced. As Nature points out, “many scientists would complain (even if only among themselves) that some published studies, especially those that draw press attention, are themselves vulnerable to bias and sensationalism”.
And science press officers play our role too. The BMJ study that shows that many exaggerated claims in news articles could be traced directly back to a press release was no surprise to those of us who regularly groan at hyped press releases. And who can forget that moment at Leveson when Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was challenged about a misleading story on cancer risk only for him to pull out the offending university press release from his folder.
The other thing about this debate that grates on me is how quick most actors are to dismiss all science journalism as problematic. I don’t dispute that poor science reporting can cause real harm and I concede that problems remain. But anyone who comments on this without even acknowledging the good stuff is guilty of cherry picking or lazy thinking – neither of which is very scientific. Even my lengthy blogs are not long enough to highlight the many complex and contentious science stories that have been reported accurately to a mass audience in a measured way.
I am in the middle of putting together a case study on mitochondrial donation, a story reported by the media from 2005 when researchers asked the HFEA for a licence to research, right through to 2017 when the Newcastle pioneers were given the licence to start treating women with mitochondrial disease. Despite the framing of the issue under the much loved ‘three parent babies’ headline, the reporting has been extraordinary. And not just in the posh papers. The Sun and Mail loved this story and consistently covered it well by bringing a contentious, cutting edge technique to a mass audience on a regular basis. Let none of us kid ourselves that our MPs would have voted by huge majority to allow this treatment for serious mitochondrial disease if this issue had been reported as badly as critics suggest. I sat in a room last week listening to Nick Pidgeon and colleagues describing public attitudes to climate change citing figures like more than 80% of the public believe it’s happening. Of course there will be multiple reasons but is there anyone who doesn’t believe that years of reporting on climate change, by our best science and environment reporters, did not contribute to these levels of understanding? I could go on.
So here is my plea. Let’s stop talking about fake news in science until we see some and it becomes a problem. And let’s stop talking about science reporting as if it’s all bad and problematic and as dangerous as fake news. I’ll tell you what really scares me. Waking up one day to discover that the specialist journalists who have so far survived in the UK media disappear and our research is being covered by general news journalists and editors with no love for the stories or understanding of what constitutes significant findings. Rather than obsessing about fake news or telling everyone that the poor reporting on science we have is just as damaging as fake news, let’s put our heads together to see what we can do to celebrate the best science reporting and to protect the endangered species of specialist reporters, many of whom spend more time knocking down bad stories than they do writing them.
Bad reporting of good science isn’t fake news. Good reporting of bad science isn’t fake news either. We don’t need a new term for either, and we don’t need a new bandwagon to jump on. These two things have been around forever, along with plenty of good reporting of good science, and we already have a term for the whole glorious mess – it’s news.