Thought: could make it specifically about the reporting of controversy. What is balance in this situation? Could expand slightly to include SCIENTIFIC as opposed to just MEDICAL controversy.

Choose various areas that are treated as controversies in the press and see if they have any common features.

Obvious controversies: MMR, ID/creationism, climate change

 Common features:

  • Controversy in press/popular opinion much greater than within scientific community
  • Correct course of action if majority scientific opinion accurate much scarier/requiring of lifestyle change than correct course of action if not: carbon emissions, risk of autism (arguable: removal of religious security blanket? Think through when not nearly midnight)

So: perhaps, go through various “scientific” controversies, draw common features of reporting and public opinion, use to inform study of MMR (as it’s the medical one and this is after all the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics), and final section could be on conclusions/advice for future. Again, go through this when you’re more awake.

 Anyway. Just a thought.

JN interview, 12.12.06

December 18, 2006

1. Before becoming a journalist, did you attend any sort of journalism course? What type?

If yes: were there “ethics” classes on that course, or were the ethics of journalism discussed at all?

If no: what sort of on-the-job training did you do, and were ethics a part of that training?

Since leaving training and becoming a journalist, are ethics (still?) discussed at all

In your opinion, should they be? Please note – this isn’t a trick question and I’m not presupposing the answer “yes”. Most people presumably have some idea of what it means to behave responsibly. There may be no need to formalise it in the workplace.

2. Is a working knowledge of the topic you are writing on an ethical requirement? To what extent is that the case?

3. As a health writer, how do you deal with the specialist knowledge the topic entails? Have you taken any special training or courses? Did your editor or any of your superiors insist upon these, or were they your own idea?

4. Naturally we can’t expect every health journalist to have a medical degree, so presumably there will be times when the topic will require specialist knowledge that the journalist in question simply doesn’t have; perhaps a grounding in statistical analysis, for example, to understand risk probabilities in a health-scare story. How does a conscientious journalist deal with this problem? For example:

  • Whose opinion should a journalist trust? 
  • How many opinions should they get before making up their mind, and if scientific opinion goes against the journalist’s instincts, how far should they push it?
  • What should we consider “balance”? Does taking two extreme views constitute balance?
  • 5. When reporting on the results of a new study or trial, do journalists tend to simply use the press release or do they read the whole report? Again, I’m not necessarily suggesting they should.

    6. Are there any other problem areas for health journalism that you feel are interesting?

    7. Do you have a science degree? (Probably should be question 1 or 2)


    Did eight weeks of a 12-week course at the London College of Printing; ethical component consisted of the part-time Law correspondent at the Sun giving a weekly lecture which John described as “the law and how to avoid it”. John is, however, a philosophy graduate. He feels ethics are largely synonymous with “standards” in journalism; whereas a Sun reporter might be able to make stuff up, and their readers will expect it, someone on a broadsheet is meant to be offering a quality product. Also, ethics overlaps with “covering your arse” – your readers will include specialists on the topic, who are itching to write in and correct you. You will then have to explain carefully to your editor what you did to avoid representing the situation unfairly.

    Points out that since we no longer have a “man in the clouds” arbitrating our ethics, there is a certain amount of social realism necessarily involved. However, basic ethical goal is ensuring your work is “true, fair, balanced and accurate”; he did acknowledge that there are obvious value judgements involved there.

    I questioned what it meant to be “balanced”; in light of Wakefield, or ID/evolution. He said that in these sort of situations, of someone arguing “white against black”, all one can do is report the story; explain that this controversy has led to, say, an x-percent reduction in vaccine cover and how that can lead to an exponential increase in measles, but also the apparent risks according to Lancet, and interviews with, say, Wakefield, an MMR proponent, and perhaps pro- and anti-vaccine parents. He added that a side-bar including the risks of taking small studies at face value would be a good idea. Similarly for ID a simple reporting of the number of schools teaching the “controversy” rather than putting an angle on the story would be a good idea.

    On reporting any health issue an awareness of the emotiveness of the issue is important, and therefore he uses certain “filters” – only reporting on “cures” that have been published in the better class of peer-reviewed journal and are the product of decent clinical trials, rather than in-vitro or animal testing (although he admits that on the latter he has an element of bias as a vegetarian). Similarly, he will include appropriate caveats; as mentioned, Wakefield study/12 people thing. This is part of the broadsheet thing – the Mail, for example, “cures cancer every week”.

    A philosophy graduate, but worked for a long time in various nursing trade journals – Nursing Standard, Nursing Times – which has given him both an excellent contacts book and some internal “buzzers and alarms” for when a story sounds implausible or untrustworthy. However, he feels it would be arrogant of any journalist to assume they know what they are talking about; the contacts book is the first port of call. The Royal Colleges tend to be excellent, and the British Psychological Society has a very good database of research interests.

    He raised the issue that the Lancet and other (quality) peer-reviewed journals have a duty to vet what they publish, as their work is a lead point for mainstream journalism. The Wakefield thing in the Lancet was later admitted to have shoddy methodology and
    Wakefield himself may have had a conflict of interest, and this was not spotted in the original Lancet report. This bypasses journalists’ filters.

    He doesn’t use press releases as such; if, say, a drug manufacturer sends a press release, he will ignore it as there isn’t time or space to pay attention to all of them. However, when quality journals publish something, he will first read the news-wire release and then get the abstract and perhaps basic methodology off PubMed so that he can determine its reliability (ask questions like size of trial, type of trial, institution [South Wales Poly? Barts and the London?]).

    Supervisor meeting, 5.12.06

    December 7, 2006

    Supervisor meeting, Tuesday 5th December 2006
    Present: Tom Chivers, Patricia Walsh
    Items discussed:

  • Supervisors’ written comments on ethical theory piece to be posted.
  • Written comments on piece about the importance of medical reporting by journalists to be discussed  at next meeting.
  • Short meeting with second supervisor: Jonathan’s comment that the PhD thesis was in danger of platitude: “Do health journalists have an ethical duty to achieve a certain level of expertise in their topics?”  too obvious a question. The possibility of re-aligning the PhD in response to this so that instead of being about “expertise” in general it could ask whether journalists have a responsibility to be able to read clinical trial reports themselves instead of merely relying on press releases; this would be less platitudinous, as not only do most journalists not read the reports, there is an argument that if they are not trained in reading scientific papers they may misinterpret technical language and take a different meaning away from the report than a trained scientist would. This to be thought about>
  • The questions for John Naish, Times journalist; should we add more? Which other journalists do I want to contact?
  • Requirements of interview training: Roger Mayhew investigating this but has not got back to us yet
  • It was suggested that it would be important to sign up for KILT’s Teaching training, though this is full for this year. To contact them about next year.
  • Homeopathy talk by Ben Goldacre and the networking possibilities it opened up
  • Possibility of tutoring work at the Open University- to investigate
  • Ongoing work on a Philosophy of Science breakdown thing
  • To produce new 6 month plan of work with deadlines

  • Date of next meeting : Tuesday 9th January 2007 at 2.30.
  • Agenda:
  • Report on interview with John Naish, if it happens by then

    Report on interviewing training

    Work on scientific methodology

    To discuss new plan of work