Wednesday, 27 June 2012

UKCSJ: Leveson Inquiry, and what it means for science journalism.

 On Monday 25th June 2012 I gave a talk at the UK Conference of Science Journalists. Along with David Derbyshire (freelance environment and science journalist) and Bob Satchwell (Executive Director, Society of Editors), we looked at what the Leveson Inquiry means for science journalism. I was involved in this as I gave written and oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. My colleagues tell me that people were tweeting after the session asking to see the speech, so here it is:

There were four messages I wanted to get across during my oral evidence at the Leveson Inquiry:

 1.   We have some of the best science journalists in the world;

 2.   They are to be found in the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Mirror as much as in the Guardian and Times;

 3.   Because of this, the scientific community now relies on the media to convey important, complex and exciting stories to millions of people every day.;

 4.   BUT despite this

-things still go wrong

-it can sometimes matter a lot when they go wrong

-the SMC feels there are things we could do that could fix some of what goes wrong fairly easily


Lots people, myself included, get fed up people talking about MMR. It happened more than 10 years ago  and frankly, few come out of the story smelling of roses.

But there are some reasons why we should remember MMR, and this is relevant to Leveson’s remit of investigating the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ operating in newsrooms that could potentially harm the public interest.

 Much of the same ‘culture, practice and ethics’ that produced MMR remains in newsrooms; see if you recognize any of these:

 - The appetite for a great scare story

 - The view that ‘the more extraordinary the claim, the more the rush to publish’

 - The tendency to overstate a claim made by one expert in a small study which has not been replicated

 - The reluctance to put one alarming piece of research into its wider context

- The addiction to journalistic balance – which saw Wakefield and his supporters given the same space as the 99.9% of the scientific community who believed MMR was safe

 - The love of a maverick – the lone voice prepared to stand up to the medical establishment


For me, Leveson has provided us with a rare opportunity to reflect on:

- what would need to change in a newsroom to fix the things that go wrong;

- what would need to change to ensure we could not have a repeat of MMR.

It’s given us a chance to imagine and aspire to a new landscape…a new world;

- a world where news editors defer to their science specialists on all science stories;

- a world where headlines have to accurately represent the content of the story below them;

- a world where sub editors check the headline with science reporters;

- a world where newspapers could follow the Guardian and appoint editors and sub editors with a science specialism;

- a world where journalists see extraordinary and shocking claims from preliminary new studies as a ‘handle with care’ issue to be reported on the inside pages with the necessary caveats;

- a world where truth telling journalism means reporting where the weight of evidence lies rather than balancing every scientific opinion with an opposing view;

 -a  world where any codes on accuracy apply to comment and opinion as well as news;

- a world where a set of Guidelines on good practice in science reporting  is widely adopted by newsrooms;

- a world where a tough regulator ensures that there is a high price to pay for science reporting that falls short of these ideals;

Now the only question is; does Leveson share that vision, and even if he does, will anyone listen to him?

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