A first attempt to put something together from my new-found grasp of the literature

August 9, 2007

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


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


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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