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Should Science Journalists take sides?

September 28th 2010

A few of our “Behind the Headlines” writers and analysts went along to a Royal Institution panel discussion entitled “Should science journalists take sides?”. The debate was organised by Mark Henderson, the Science Editor of the Times (you can follow his tweets should you like) and the premise was:

“Does fair reporting of science mean giving all views a similar hearing? Does such balance distort scientific debates, over issues such as the MMR vaccine, global warming, animal experiments and GM crops? What should journalists do when one side of an argument has more scientific credibility and support than another? And to what extent do they have a responsibility to weigh up competing opinions, to decide whether some are more equal than others? A panel of experts will discuss the issue.”

As purveyors of scientific evidence to help inform policy – often in controversial areas (such as water fluoridation and MMR safety to name a couple), we looked forward to hearing and contributing to the discussion. And indeed as promised the experts discussed and the audience asked questions, and afterwards people retired to the bar (for drinks, not to become barristers). We were not asked to vote before or after the debate on our agreement or not of a statement structured around “this house believes…”, which was a shame as I think that can make proceedings more fun. One person in the audience suggested that rather than should science journalists take sides, it would be more helpful to think in terms of when should science journalists take sides. Other issues raised and discussed included: 1) when is a science story a science story, as political and social topics are sometimes distractingly framed as science issues; 2) the relationship between rational argument and other aspects of news stories, including emotional context, human interest and the need for a gripping narrative, and 3) if you are to take sides, is that the side of “science” against the non-scientists, or is it one particular scientist or group of scientists against another (what happens when the news story is between two scientists/scientific points of view - is the general consensus always correct??), or should you consider yourself on the side of “evidence/rational thought” in general, whatever that might mean.

We’re glad that this topic is being covered more seriously in the media as we think that it’s an important issue; we live in a world where an understanding of science is becoming increasingly vital. There are various groups who are operating in the broad sphere of the “public understanding of science”, including The Science Media Centre, Sense About Science, the Centre for Investigative Journalism, the Progress Educational Trust, NHS Choices Behind the Headlines and of course various blog sites such as Bad Science. And while you may have missed this debate at the Royal Institution, Mark Henderson is also the guest curator for the Science Question time discussion on the 26 October

Should science journalists take sides? We don’t have the answer, but we’re pleased that at least people in (and out) of the media are starting to ask the question.