If Frost’s book (and Karen Sanders, and the Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media one) is anything to go by, there seems to be something of a gap in the literature regarding the issues that particularly apply to science journalism.

The first is that of the possibility of harm to the public through affecting their opinions and thus their behaviour – I have to say “possibility” because the effect of the media on behaviour is unproven, but it is widely assumed. In fact it could be argued that the libel laws imply it; if people’s behaviour towards an individual was unchanged by defamatory comments, then there would be no “damages” to award. Another obvious example includes Rebekah Wade’s paedophilia campaign at the News of the World; unless someone is willing to suggest that gangs of mobs would have burned down a paediatrician anyway, then that is a clear-cut case of behavioural change caused by press coverage. More relevantly there is also some research which suggests it – e.g. NKZ thing, plus the following about AIDS:

Social policy, the media and misrepresentation

Ed. Bob Franklin, Routledge 1999

Chapter 4 – “Dying of ignorance? Journalists, news sources and the media reporting of HIV/AIDS”, Kevin Williams

P82 – 83

“The media played an important role in shaping the development of AIDS policy, especially in creating a climate of opinion which demanded government action…

…the media are an integral part of the struggle to make policy”.

The media’s ability to affect policy is implicitly assumed everywhere – see Alastair Campbell – and it only affects policy if it affects, or is seen to affect, public opinion. It is then very hard to see how public opinion can be affected without some effect on public behaviour (think of comments like “gay plague” in the press re AIDS) and from there it is a short step to public health and/or wellbeing. It can’t be proved, perhaps, that the press affects behaviour, but there is a strong suggestion that it does; certainly the press act as though they believe it does. And if they believe they do, then they surely have an ethical duty to act in such a way as to be beneficial, or at least non-harmful, to that wellbeing.

The second issue that is lacking in the literature is that of the increased difficulty in science reporting of ensuring that the reader is not misled. As shown above, the usual ways a reader can gauge the reliability of a story (check against knowledge, check against sources) do not apply as strongly when you lack the knowledge itself and the skills to examine the sources; and, as I have previously considered, a lay reader could easily take away a message of “ongoing controversy” from an article that to an expert in the field might clearly speak of a closed debate.

My research must therefore consider how a journalist sidesteps or minimises these concerns. Are there cases when apparently important scientific stories should simply be ignored, as they might put the public at risk? Should they go ahead, with sufficient caveats? What can be considered “sufficient” in that situation?

Key points in journalism ethics

Privacy

The public’s right to know, essential for the political process in a democratic society (and, some might suggest, a good in itself)

Newsworthiness – what does this entail? Frost’s suggestion – topicality and “what interests the reader”. Seems wildly inadequate; lots of things interest the reader without being newsworthy, surely? I want to lump it in with the right to know.

Responsibility to the reader

Truthfulness/accuracy/impartiality/objectivity/balance

How do these apply to science journalism?

Privacy – not uniquely relevant to science journalism. Shouldn’t print animal researcher’s addresses, but then probably shouldn’t print anyone’s address.

Public’s right to know – important not just from the point of view of democracy (although that is also important; policymaking on e.g. climate change, MMR/autism, AIDS, stem cell research, animal testing – everything really – is influenced by public opinion, and, one assumes, public opinion is influenced by the media), but because the public’s response to certain scientific issues will directly affect their wellbeing or that of others. It could be said to be important that the public knew about BSE/CJD, for example.

KEY QUESTION: What do the public have a right to know in science journalism?

Newsworthiness – when should research count as newsworthy? Presumably this is connected to the public’s right to know. If something is entertaining or sensational, it could be newsworthy, but only if the public has a right to know it, or at least no-one has a right to keep it concealed. Presumably for a science journalist a story like “new Earth-like planet discovered in distant solar system” is newsworthy, even if the public don’t have a right to know per se. “Public’s right to know” presumably covers similar ground to “the public interest” – see PCC report. With science journalism, this could be tricky. Usually the problem is going to be new research and opinions. What criteria should be used to determine when research becomes news? At what stage does the public interest/right to know permit premature coverage? Also – whose opinion can be considered newsworthy? “Scientist,” “academic”, “professor”? E.g. Observer again – publishing (and, of course, getting wrong) story on Cambridge autism research before it was published, claiming that two “key researchers” believed MMR involved in increase; is that acceptable (or rather would it have been acceptable if the opinions expressed had been accurate)?

KEY QUESTION: When if ever should unpublished research and personal opinions form science stories?

Responsibility to the reader – what does this responsibility consist in? A responsibility, obviously, to provide what the public have a right to; and a duty to provide timely and truthful information. Is there in any sense also a duty to protect them? Use NotW paedophilia thing as an example. Let us assume for the moment that the public had a right to know where neighbourhood paedophiles lived; therefore the NotW had a duty to provide that information. Is there also a duty to protect those members of the public – both the paedophiles themselves and those caught in the “crossfire” – from the consequences of that information being made public? By analogy; assuming there is a duty to provide the public with the information that some doctors believed MMR to cause autism, is there also a duty on the part of the journalist to protect the public from the consequences of not using MMR? How would one discharge such a duty?

KEY QUESTIONS: Do the media ever have a duty to protect the public from the effects of information; even truthful information? How should this duty be carried out while avoiding censorship?

Truthfulness/accuracy/impartiality/objectivity/balance – are there levels of truthfulness? It is true, for example, that David Bellamy claimed in 2006 that he didn’t believe that climate change was dangerous or man-made; but is it “truthful” to report that as a standalone fact, or is it misleading the readership by leaving out the point that he is pretty much alone among scientists in his belief?

Is balance always a good thing? As Frost points out, if we were reporting on child abuse, we wouldn’t interview a child abuser as “balance” for the social workers and policemen in an effort to make the report even-handed. Is it analogous in science to bring in rare contrarians as a “balance” to the scientists representing the majority position? If there is a minority claiming that their viewpoint is backed by the science (which they will), what steps (if any) should a journalist take to make decisions for him- or herself on the evidence? Should science journalists in fact be scientifically trained? If not who should they trust? A point should be made that the scientists (or advocates of a certain scientific position) journalists most often come across will often be vocal rather than trustworthy – see Frost’s section on internet creationists, which he doesn’t seem to extrapolate to the media in general.

KEY QUESTIONS: Does “truthfulness” imply more than simply reporting the truth? Is it acceptable to give one-sided accounts of science stories if the dissenting view is in a small minority? Should journalists have a background in science?

The Key Questions revisited

KEY QUESTION: What do the public have a right to know in science journalism?

Possible answers: things that affect or are likely to affect their health; things that are likely to affect humanity; things that are likely to affect their lifestyle; advances for the human race; controversial ethical issues.

KEY QUESTION: When if ever should 1) unpublished research and 2) personal opinions form science stories?

Possible answers: 1) on subjects covered by “right to know”, above; when research is reputable and near completion (then why not wait for it to be completed? Avoid scooping?); when researchers issue pre-publication press release (should this be acceptable? Does this just lay the responsibility on the researchers, or does the journalist still have a duty to check it thoroughly?); when pre-publication information is leaked by a researcher

2) Again, when covered by “right to know”; when the source is reputable and expert in the specific relevant field, rather than in “science”.

KEY QUESTIONS: 1) Do the media ever have a duty to protect the public from the effects of information; even truthful information? 2) How should this duty be carried out while avoiding censorship?

Possible answers: 1) yes; no; maybe. Presumably there is some duty not to shout fire in a crowded theatre; NotW thing pretty uncomplicatedly wrong, I expect. But where is the line? Is printing an article detailing which speed cameras don’t have film a dereliction of duty?

2) through providing sufficient further information around it to allow the reader to make informed decisions on the risks themselves. Further question raised; what is “sufficient information”, and can lay readers ever make informed risk-analysis decisions on highly specialist subjects?

KEY QUESTIONS: 1) Does “truthfulness” imply more than simply reporting the truth? 2) Is it acceptable to give one-sided accounts of science stories if the dissenting view is in a small minority? 3) Should journalists have a background in science?

Possible answers: 1) yes; as suggested in duty/censorship, background is vital. How much, though?

2) yes; no; maybe. Presumably we wouldn’t expect the flat-Earth society represented in all reports on gap year kids on round-the-world trips. To take the other point of view (as so many do), Galileo was a minority.

3) yes; no; maybe. It would be the ideal if they all did, but would it automatically mean a reduction in science coverage if there weren’t enough of them to go around, or if newspapers felt unable to afford their wages? Furthermore, what does a “background in science” mean – a BSc, or a chemistry O-level? In-house training?

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PCC Code of Practice:

 

Long, in-depth piece covering the following headings:

 

  • Accuracy
  • Opportunity to reply
  • Privacy
  • Harassment
  • Intrusion into grief or shock
  • Children
  • Children in sex cases
  • Listening devices
  • Hospitals
  • Innocent relatives and friends
  • Misrepresentation
  • Victims of sexual assault
  • Discrimination
  • Financial journalism
  • Confidential sources
  • Payment for articles
  • The public interest

 

Interestingly, and importantly, nothing on “public health” except as a definition of public interest, meaning that it is excusable to override one or more of the other clauses if it will get you a story of relevance to public health. No suggestion that public wellbeing might be affected by the story itself.

 

NUJ Code of Conduct

 

13-point code, in which the effects on the readership are completely ignored. A section on “harmful inaccuracies” refers to libel, i.e. harmful to the subject of the story rather than the readers.

More of the same.

Media ethics and self-regulation
Chris Frost, Pearson Education Ltd, 2000

p1

The right of the public to know underpins journalistic ethics and “springs from the theory of representative democratic government” – citizens need “correct and detailed information” in order to make political decisions such as voting choices.

p12

“Journalists have to consider the public right to know, rights of privacy, the wishes of their employer and their responsibility to the reader when working on a story”

Chapter 2

p18-19

What makes an event newsworthy? Can’t decide simply through observation of the categories that news falls into, but have to establish the principles that underly them. Having said that, Frost only picks out “topicality” and “what interests the reader”.

p21

Ethical concern of sensationalism arises when the demand for information on a big news story outweighs the available well-sourced news, leading to temptation to invent or rely on dubious sources.

Chapter 3

p24

Author claims free press only relevant/important in context of democratic decision-making – is this true? Suggests that there are no decisions upon which the press can have influence that aren’t political. Admittedly in a pure totalitarian state this might be true, but those are rare. E.g. climate change – (mis)information could affect individual behaviour as well as political pressures.

p28

“As the journalist’s prime objective is the discovery, disclosure and analysis of the information on which others will base their views, the decisions affecting a journalist’s choices about what material to publish or broadcast should have as strong a moral component as the methods used to gather that material”

p29

“If a journalist is obliged by the law to do, or not do, a certain action, then there can be no feeling of moral obligation”.

p33

“If… one politician says that poor teaching is responsible for our children being ill-educated, whilst another says it is a lack of resources and a third says our children are actually the best-educated in the world… the only thing we can be certain of is the row [between politicians]. The rest lies in the field of opinion, usually based on untested facts and one-sided statistics. It would be foolish, and indeed dangerous, for journalists to pretend they can provide enough information for the consumer to come to a firm conclusion.” This seems to suggest that journalists should make no effort to analyse data themselves but should put across “both sides” of an argument – hardly a viable working method for science journalism.

p35

“[The Kantian maxim] ‘a journalist should always report truthfully’ [as opposed to accurately] allows the journalist to report potentially inaccurate or untruthful information, providing he or she ensures that the consumer is able to make a judgement about how reliable the information is”. Question mark again over the suitability of this for science journalism – can lay consumers make adequate judgement on the reliability of data without scientific training? Ought the judgement on how reliable the information is be taken one stage further back in the proceedings, by the journalist?

“It is the journalist’s job to give [the consumer] the information to make a rational decision, not to take that decision for the consumer”

p39

Contra the last statement? “Objective reporting is by its very nature almost impossible and is in any case undesirable”

p40

“Many journalists do not want to risk destroying a good story by discrediting [a newsworthy but misleading statement], but use it on the grounds that it is a fact that the words were said, even if they are untrue”

p41

“…if a group called Smokers for Health existed and issued a press release saying that latest research, paid for by the group and carried out in their own laboratories, shows smoking not only to be safe, but positively beneficial to health, then objective reporting might require the publishing of this amazing revelation. A reporter determined to be fair and to present truthful information might dig a little deeper, carry the same story but with additional information. He or she would add that Smokers for Health is funded by a cigarette manufacturer and carried out its research in an impoverished part of the world, paying its ‘guinea-pigs’ with resources such as food and water that were unavailable to the rest of the local population, and then leave the reader to decide why the survival rate for smokers was better”.

This is interesting for two reasons – 1) because it shows an instinctive attraction to ad-hom/motivation attacks, discrediting the research on the grounds of it being funded by a cigarette manufacturer rather than straightforwardly on the scandalously bad scientific technique (in theory the provenance of the research shouldn’t matter, although publication bias is a problem); 2) because it shows why peer review publications are such a useful “filter” in science journalism. This (admittedly hypothetical) research would never have got near, let alone past, peer review in any half-way reputable journal; uncontrolled and in fact deliberately skewing the results by feeding the smokers, plus of course the massive ethical issues involved.

p42 Balance

“For the most part, balance is difficult to achieve. This is the notion that both (or more) sides should have equal time and equal space to put their arguments. This is fine [for most political stories]. But are we really suggesting in an article or report on child abuse that for every social worker or police officer talking about the problem we would have a child abuser extolling its virtues?”

By analogy – for every scientist quoting good research and well-founded theories, should we have a raving contrarian yelling that the earth is flat?

Chp 4 p49 

On media rights: “the rights to freedom of speech and access to certain information apply equally to the media as they do to private citizens”. Frost means this in a UK legal sense, but is it true ethically? And does it really represent a right in itself, or is it just an extension of the right of the public – i.e. they couldn’t access information, or express opinions widely, without media help, so the media has to do it for them? Anyway.

 P50

“Freedom of speech is an absolute; either you have it or you don’t.”

 Is this contradicted a sentence later by this?

 “Where a person’s freedom of speech can reach a wide audience… other safeguards are felt by society to limit what can be said to that audience”.

 Either you have it or you don’t, eh? Presumably you have a right to say it in an empty room, but your right diminishes as the room fills…

 P56

 Regarding quality of information:

 “There are two main ways that we can check the information we are given by news outlets.

 1)      we can test it against our knowledge, our experience of the outlet, and scepticism

2)      We can test it by accessing primary sources and checking the information”

This represents an obvious difficulty with specialist subjects like science, especially academic subjects; we don’t have the knowledge ourselves (usually), and even if we were able to understand the primary sources, many of them are only available from expensive academic journals or web portals like Athens. This puts a much greater responsibility on the news outlet to give detailed explanations and background, as well as to report accurately. Also it could be pointed out that “our experience of the outlet” can be misleading – see Observer/MMR, July 2007

 Chp5 p61

 Acknowledgement again that journalists owe loyalty to their readers, but nothing about in the suggestions of standards of professional conduct about the effect on readership their writing could have.

 P91

 UK freedom to publish is very limited by standards of western democracies; following limits apply:

 Coverage of criminal proceedings
Protection of individual honour (libel)
Protection of commercial confidentiality
Invasions of personal privacy
Security and blasphemy
The public good (taste and decency)
Public order
Prevention of terrorism 

Interesting to note that “the public good” exists, but only covers “taste and decency” – you would think that “health” would come under “good”.

 Chp 7 p134

 “Although consumers ask for accuracy, journalists… can only offer an honest presentation of the information, checked as best they can, together with its sources…” (my emphasis)

 Interesting. Does this apply in science? And what level of referencing should be given?

 Chp 12, p242, case study 12.1

 Re: creationism:

 “A small but vocal and determined minority [on the internet] had been able to build up their theories to appear far more widely believed than they really are”

 Not just on the internet.

A few relevant bits from books on media ethics:

Ethical Issues in Journalism and the Media, ed. Andrew Bolsey and Ruth Chadwick
Routledge, 1992

Chp. 1, Ethics and politics of the media – the quest for quality
By the editors

Aims of journalism (p1)

Journalism… has an honourable aim, the circulation of information, including news, comment and opinion. This is an honourable aim because the health of a [democratic] community… depends on it. There is no reason why journalism should not have further aims as well, such as entertainment, so long as these are subordinated to the overall aim of the circulation of information.

What is a “free press?” (p5)

Is it the freedom of editors to decide what gets broadcast or published? Is it the freedom of journalists to offer fact and opinion without fear of sanction or persecution? Or is it the freedom of ordinary people to receive full and fair information on all issues that are likely to affect their lives and their interests?

What might constitute a “code of conduct” in journalism?(p10/11)

Authors suggest: rights-based; although this would then entail establishing a hierarchy of rights. For example, if people have a right not to be deceived, but also a right not to be defrauded, then in a situation when exposing the fraudulent dealings of, say, a politician requires deception by journalists, whose right takes precedent? That of the politician, or those of the constituents he is defrauding?

Another suggestion: “maximis[ing] the satisfaction of the interests of those to whom the conduct is directed” – i.e. the readership.

Or a third: “anchor[ing] the conduct in a virtuous character, one that for journalists would exhibit specific virtues such as fairness, truthfulness, trustworthiness and non-malevolence.” Is this basic enough? Surely in defining what virtues a journalist should have, you’re really just listing the ways in which s/he should behave? Is it then just a code of conduct at one remove?

Any code of conduct for journalists is divisible in to two “broad aspects” (p12), “input” and “output”. Outpu is that which reaches the public – articles, reports, programmes etc – while input is the “day-to-day practice” of journalism; research, newsgathering, whatever. Belsey and Chadwick suggest “truthfulness” as fundamental virtue for output (while recognising problematic nature of truthfulness – requires selectiveness) and “honesty” as fundamental to input (although not always overriding).

My thoughs – should some recognition of public good not be present in “output”, at least as a guide to what bits of what is “true” should be printed?

Chapter 5 – Codes of conduct for journalists
Nigel G E Harris

p65

[Areas where as yet no codes give guidance include] advice columns… ranging over health, personal relationships, gardening, travel and financial matters. Some are written by professional journalists, but others are obtained from “expert” contributors…

…editors should be seen as taking responsibility for ensuring that the person giving the advice is appropriately qualified. Where advice is given on matters which could affect people’s wellbeing, press codes could require conformity to the practices of giving the status of the advice provider and recommending readers to obtain an independent professional opinion before acting on the advice.

p66

Author lists 3 direct beneficiaries of codes of conduct:

  • Readership (through clauses stressing requirements of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity etc)
  • Sources (through confidentiality clauses and similar)
  • Investigatees (through privacy and harrassment clauses)

p68

Author suggests that a risk of having strictly enforceable codes of conduct (perhaps analogous to the possibility of getting “struck off” a la GMC) would be the possibility of powerful investigatees (politicians or oligarchs, perhaps) putting pressure on the professional body to have the journalists investigating their wrongdoings sanctioned.

p69 – Reader’s interests

“Reporters may be required to give the truth; to write accurately and objectively; to avoid distortion, selection or misrepresentation of the facts; to avoid bias or partiality; to refrain from conjecture or the passing off of opinion as fact”

For more codes of conduct see: J C Jones, Mass Media Codes of Ethics and Councils, Paris, Unesco

British codes of conduct include the National Union of Journalists, the Newspaper Publishers Association, the PCC, Broadcasting Standards Council, and the Institute of Journalists

Chapter 8: Objectivity, Bias and Truth
Andrew Edgar

This chapter is so stuffed with clever-clever postmodernist bullshit about the impossibility of objectivity and “the social event as freely interpretable text”, such as might be written by a first-year philosophy undergraduate who’s just heard of Derrida, that it can be safely ignored in all its pompous, wilfully obscure entirety. Plus he uses the word “plurivocity”, for fuck’s sake. A disgrace.