A very, very early draft of the first few lines of the first chapter of this introductory submission thing. 

It is not exactly controversial to say that journalism is as capable of doing harm as it is of doing good. Indeed, it is essentially impossible for a conscientious journalist to avoid doing harm; as Beauchamp and Klaidman[1] point out, the disappointed theatre critic harms “the author of the play, the actors, the director, producer, investors, and many others connected with the production”, yet we would not wish him to lie about the play to avoid this harm. The ethical journalist, surely, is one who honestly weighs up both the potential for harm and the potential for benefit of whichever story he or she is writing and proceeds only if the good is likely to outweigh the harm. 

Of course the terms “good” and “harm” are loaded with meanings that need unpacking. For a start, it is worth asking: what is good, and good to whom? After all, the recent story in the Sun regarding a sighting of a great white shark off the coast of Cornwall[2] certainly did good for the proprietor of the Sun – sales of the paper that day skyrocketed – despite the picture upon which the story was based being exposed as a hoax within days (it was in fact taken in South Africa). Does that qualify as a “good” that the ethical journalist should weigh against the potential harm of needlessly scaring people away from Cornish beaches? Few would say so; the Sun’s continued lack of apology or even acknowledgement by the time of writing (27th August 2007) is inappropriate. 

Our understanding of what “good” is from a journalist’s perspective hinges upon what our understanding of a journalist’s role is. Is a journalist an entertainer, a public defender, a teller of stories? Belsey and Chadwick[3] suggest the following: 

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. 

This seems a fair assessment. Newspapers are allowed to have cartoons, as long as the cartoons do not distract from or supersede the newspaper’s main purpose of providing the public with information. If this is their main purpose, then surely its achievement is the main criterion by which we shall measure their success – so the good for which a newspaper strives is the provision of information, and the intended recipient of that good must always be the public. There is no problem if in the dissemination of this information the proprietors grow rich or the journalist makes a name for himself as a talented and hard-working writer; however, these goods do not act as counterweights to any harm a story may cause. 

The possible victims of “harm” must be a wider group – the journalist cannot worry solely about the general public, although they must be considered, but also about the subjects of the piece, as well as any sources he or she may have consulted. If the journalist values their job, they would also do well to consider their proprietor’s and any advertiser’s interests as well; this could be considered an ethical consideration (it is hardly ethical to bite the hand that feeds), but most would probably think it secondary to the others. We saw above that a story’s sensational appeal (sharks in Cornwall, for instance) does not compensate for its inaccuracy, no matter how many papers it sells. 

Similarly the definition of what constitutes harm is not as narrow as that of good. A newspaper only has one chief good it can strive for, the purveyance of information, but it has many ways in which it can hurt. A good common-sense definition of harm is found in Feinberg[4]: 

One person harms another… by invading, and thereby thwarting or setting back, his interest. The test… of whether such an invasion has in fact set back an interest is whether that interest is in a worse condition than it would otherwise have been in had the invasion not occurred at all… 

Feinberg rightly points out that not all harm is unjustified – the unswerving honesty of the sports correspondent’s appraisal of a poor performance by an athlete, for instance, may harm that athlete’s career – but it is still harm. 

How then does all of this apply to science journalism? In one sense it applies in exactly the same way. It is the job of the ethical science journalist to weigh up the harms and benefits that a story may cause before running it, just as much as it is the job of his colleagues on the news, sports and arts desks; it is still the public to whom he owes his primary loyalty, and that loyalty is still expressed through the honest dissemination of information. However, a key difference is that their potential for doing harm is, compared to most of their colleagues, generally confined to the general public. This is not uniformly true: a key researcher in a story could be wounded by allegations of sloppiness or unethical behaviour, or the source of prematurely leaked research might be hurt were their anonymity not protected; but on the whole, the subjects of science stories are concepts, theories or groups rather than individuals, and the sources tend to be press releases or named individuals rather than anonymous whistleblowers. 

How might this harm to the public manifest itself? To refer back to the shark story mentioned above, the harm it might theoretically cause is obvious – people who have paid to go on holiday by the sea could be too scared of jagged-toothed death from below to go in the water. On Feinberg’s definition, the holidaymakers’ “interests” of rest and relaxation have been thwarted by the story; and if it leads to a drop in tourism, then the financial interests of local industry have suffered too. 

An analogous case in science journalism might be a health scare. The MRSA bacterium has made headlines several times over the past few years, including several undercover “stings” by tabloid newspapers that purported to find dangerous levels of the antibiotic-resistant “superbug” in all sorts of worrying places – notably on a cleaner’s broom-handle[5]. Whether or not this story was true, if it worried people into not going in to hospital, or if it makes their stay in hospital more stressful due to worry, it has harmed their interests; the question is whether the information it disseminated was accurate and worthwhile. As it turned out, while MRSA itself is a serious issue, all of these “stings” were based on highly dubious foundations; but that is a separate point. In the MRSA case, it could be suggested that the misleading information given causes actual physical harm as well as harm to “interests” – after all, a missed hospital appointment is unlikely to be good for health. It is my belief that this is a risk with many scientific stories – for example, the media controversy over the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was simultaneous to a drop in vaccination levels in Britain from a 1995/96 high of 92% to a mere 80% in 2003/04, and as low as 62% in some parts of south-east London[6], which was in turn linked to the first measles death in Britain for over a decade – it seems implausible at best to suggest that the media coverage was not a factor. That said, it is notoriously hard to prove the effects of media on behaviour. For our purposes, it is enough to say that people’s interests include an ability to make informed decisions, and that ability is weakened through the provision of misinformation. 

I intend to pursue this investigation through a series of case studies, each examining a single article on a scientific topic in a national newspaper and using them to raise issues that are particular to scientific stories. These articles are:  

1)      “New health fears over big surge in autism” (Duncan Campbell, The Observer, 8th July 2007), an article claiming that new research has shown a dramatic rise in British autism cases and suggesting that the authors of the research believed it to be due to the MMR vaccine

2)      “Warming is down to sun, says Irish prof” (Lisa O’Connor, The Sunday Mirror (Eire Edition), 18th March 2007), an article reporting that a former professor of electronic engineering at University College Dublin denies a link between anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and global warming 

3)      “My war on electrosmog: Julia Stephenson sets out to clear the airwaves” (Julia Stephenson, The Independent, 31st May 2007, an article in which the author details her own experience of physical symptoms apparently caused by radiation from her wireless internet router. 

None of these articles are impeccable from the point of view of journalistic ethics. The Observer article misrepresents the views of two of the researchers, and fails to mention a significant competing interest on the part of a third. The Mirror’s piece fails to provide any balance to the story, leaving any reader without prior knowledge to believe that the professor’s views are a sole authority. The Independent is similarly silent on the large body of research carried out into “electrosensitivity” and “electrosmog” which often contradicts the author’s angle. However, these problems – of misrepresentation and balance – could apply to any journalism, not just science coverage. What I intend to concentrate on are more specific concerns, namely: the use of unpublished research; individual and “expert” opinions, and their newsworthiness; and anecdotal evidence.


[1] Stephen Klaidman and Tom L Beauchamp, The Virtuous Journalist, New York: Oxford University Press 1987; p93

[2]Shark is spotted off Cornwall”, John Coles and Alastair Taylor, The Sun, 28th July 2007

[3] 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, p1

[4] Joel Feinberg, Harm to Others, New York: Oxford University Press 1984; pp 34 – 35

[5] “The Mop of Death”, The Sunday Mirror, 29 August 2004

[6] “MMR crisis could spark measles epidemic”, The Daily Telegraph, 23rd September 2004

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?

 

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.

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.

May 2, 2007

Part ninety-four in slightly obscure notes to self: not sure if this is ludicrously obvious – it generally is when something strikes me as utterly profound – but it seems that a large part of the ethical work of journalists in this field will be deciding what is newsworthy. To give two extremes – IPCC report newsworthy, David Bellamy’s unfounded burblings probably not. What are criteria? Authority, public interest I suppose.

Not remotely profound, but there you go.

More on Controversy

January 9, 2007

More specific questions:

How should we define a scientific controversy? Working definition – where two mutually exclusive explanations are being proposed for a single phenomenon (perhaps “Autism caused by MMR”, or “autism NOT caused by MMR”). Should we narrow it down to “by researchers in the field”?

Obviously this means almost everything is a controversy to a greater or lesser extent. How do we determine this extent within the scientific debate on the topic? Possibility: for MMR/autism, PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link. Am limiting only to the very large and reputable scientific journals – is this appropriate? Does all significant research make it into them eventually? Ask.

To what extent is the level of controversy within the scientific debate reflected in the public arena? Are there common factors determining which scientific controversies get picked up in the popular press? How would we establish such a reflection? One possibility – check whether the number of articles on a topic in the reputable peer-reviewed journals corresponds to the number of articles in the popular press, and also whether the tone and balance corresponds. So for MMR/autism: PubMed search for MMR/autism in the BMJ, JAMA, Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine, say, and see year-by-year how many articles continue to admit possibility of a link; compare with similar search on LexisNexis or something. Comparison both of NUMBER/FREQUENCY of articles and PERCENTAGE SUGGESTING LINK. Need comparable system for other controversies. In event of the two corresponding less than we might expect, attempt to show factors; preferably common factors between examples.

Are there any examples of “major” (term will need defining) controversies that don’t get picked up by the popular press? Am thinking continental drift and tectonic plate theory, but will need to check. Why don’t they?

How should the balance of a debate be represented in print?

When is it appropriate for mainstream journalism to report on controversy within the sci community? E.g. if a small piece of research suggests a public health risk might exist but doesn’t confirm anything, should the journalist await further confirmation by research or is it more responsible to publish straightaway? Does the level of possible “scariness” (would like a better word than that) affect that decision – i.e. does the increased possible public interest necessitate lower threshold of “publishability” (and again) or does the greater risk of public panic have the reverse effect? How does one determine all of this?

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)

    Answers:

    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?]).

    More ideas

    November 24, 2006

    Need to establish – is there evidence that the reporting of health stories affects public health/wellbeing? Seems obvious, but I’m criticising science writing; need to be scientific.

     Also – is there evidence that scientific education can help? This time there probably won’t be actual empirical evidence, so will have to rely on reasoning.

    Was the Lancet right to publish the initial Wakefield study? They must have known the furore that it would have caused. Do they normally publish such tiny and unreliable studies? Is it possible that their wish to be groundbreaking etc was a factor – i.e. the very knowledge that it would cause such an uproar makes them more likely to publish, as it could enhance their reputation?

    Who apart from the writer has responsibilities? Does the paper as a whole have a responsibility to hire science graduates to comment on science stories? To what extent should editors be able to check facts; and should they bring in outside expertise when they are not qualified to check the facts themselves? How plausible is all of this?

    Do tabloid leaders “expect” to be lied to (source: JN interview)? To what extent do they affect public opinion – are they just fun to read or do people take them seriously?