A few weeks ago, we got a visit in the newsroom from some scientists who wanted to shout at us.
Well, not quite: in fact, they were press officers from the Science Media Centre, an organisation that “works to promote the voices, stories and views of the UK scientific community to the news media when science is in the headlines”, and they were very friendly. But they were worried about the kind of language that journalists use “when science is in the headlines”. You know the kind of thing: “Trials of GM crops bring new fears of ‘Frankenstein’ food“. “Could Chinese herbs and coffee cure cancer?“.
We came in for our fair share of both praise and criticism. As the SMC saw it, tabloids and broadsheets both seemed to swing between responsible reporting and outrageous sensationalism almost by the day, with, on occasion, the redtops doing a more even-handed job of reporting a new breakthrough than the more august papers.
We had a lively exchange of views about a lot of subjects; it wasn’t just a lecture. The SMC were interested to talk to subs and section editors and find out what happens to a story after it enters the production process.
We talked about how a responsible science reporter will often need to temper a non-specialist news editor’s enthusiasm for a story that the latter doesn’t fully understand – “negative pitching”, as one of our correspondents calls it. This is a phenomenon almost unknown to journalists as a rule; they usually have to talk their leads up as far as they will go in news meetings to get any space in the paper at all. But conscientious medical writers often have conversations with news editors that go something like: “You mean just drinking coffee and eating these herbs can cure cancer? THEY’VE PROVED IT? HOLD THE…” “No, it’s not as simple as that … Don’t put it on the front: I reckon it’s worth a page lead further back in home. It’s only a preliminary test on mice, and mice aren’t people.”
The SMC, because they are neither active scientists nor working journalists, are happy to tread the middle ground between researchers’ grumpiness about trite phrases and subs’ need to write headlines in small spaces. Some scientists object to the phrase “three-parent babies” used in connection with injecting donor DNA into embryos to cure mitochondrial disease. The SMC told us that they were grumbling: “It’s only a tiny bit of material”. Our regressive hack’s headline-writing instincts aroused, we said: yes, a tiny bit of material … from someone else.
We agreed to disagree about that. But, in truth, there was little to argue about when it came to the SMC’s best practice guidelines for reporting science and health stories, reproduced here:
- State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc, ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
- Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
- When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
- Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic timeframe for any new treatment or technology.
- On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – ie if “cupcakes double cancer risk” state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
- Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
- If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
- Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.*
- Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
- Remember the patients: don’t call something a “cure” that is not a cure.