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

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.

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?