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InSciOut recently participated in a debate at the Royal Institution, aimed at what scientists could do to improve science news reporting.   About 150-200 people attended from science (40%), journalism and press relations backgrounds as well as interested members of the general public.
The debate concerned how scientists and journalists could improve science reporting by changing their own behaviour (see an InSciOut blog, Guardian blog and companion piece in the Guardian online).
The speakers were Chris Chambers, Fellow at Cardiff University and member of InSciOut (see here for his account of the debate) and Dr Ananyo Bhattacharya, Editor Nature Online (see his views as well as Nature.com write-up of twitter feeds of the debate. Ed Yong (science writer and blogger) as well as Fona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre provided commentary on presentations. Alice Bell chaired the event and posted a commentary Guardian online.

The debate raised several issues that will be addressed in upcoming research and in a future debate to be held at Cardiff University. See links to the full debate at the end of this précis:

We summarise the debate around six themes that were discussed by the speakers and/or members of the audience.

1. Accuracy, Accountability and public interest

Ultimately journalists are responsible for the news they report (accuracy, interpretation). The quality of this reporting can be dependent on the quality of a press release because it is often the only data source for the press article; scientists could take more responsibility for avoiding exaggeration in press releases.  There are standards for science news reporting and these vary by publication title and the specialism of the journalist.  Error can also originate in the original scientific publication itself, and because, by nature, science constantly evolves, the first journal article is unlikely to be the final say on a topic.  The probabilistic nature of the scientific truth can sometime clash with the journalist’s need for more absolute values.

2. Journalism versus reporting (and workload)

There is tension between reporting and journalism, which is not specific to science news.   There is also tension between short headline pieces that likely attract many readers and in-depth pieces aimed at public understanding that are likely to attract a smaller audience.   How these tensions are resolved depends on goals of the report.  The tensions exist because of pressures of news reporting that are old (lack of specialism, advertising) and new (online hit rates).  The investment made in researching a piece (accuracy, reading the science article, following blogs, speaking to scientist, etc) depends on which type of story is required, and by whom.   Online news reporting is having a major impact on the format of science reporting and possibly the relevance of the press release as an intermediary between scientists and journalists.

3. Blogs

Blogs could facilitate exchange between journalists and scientists.  However this benefit could not be guaranteed if the blog was poor quality or journalists did not have the time to read the blogs.  There could also be limitations related to bloggers having more influence than warranted due to being particularly present on the science scene and ‘shouting the loudest’.   A blog of opinion by a scientist could also be misconstrued as a science report such that the distinction between blogger and reporter could become blurred.

4. Agendas

The editorial agenda affects science reporting.  The agenda is about what the reader wants but also about hits and traffic for advertising, including readers and subscriptions.  The story and its hit-potential, rather than public interest, can be the starting point for the journalist.  Scientists, journals and universities also have their own agendas.  It is not coincidental that press releases are sometimes made when new funding is required or to influence research councils preparing their thematic priorities.  Scientists can also be political (e.g., climate change).

5. Engagement.

Scientists should be more willing to do something when they see inaccuracies in news reports or when they see data misinterpreted. Scientists could usefully engage with journalists, write letters to the editor or provide a commentary following science reports or blogs.  Scientists have a duty to speak to the press when they see bad reporting.   However engagement should go beyond addressing problems and also aim to prevent such problems from occurring in the first place, for example by improving quality of press releases.   Scientists could probably be a better source for science reporting if they knew more about what journalists really expected by engagement.

6. Training

Journalists could improve reporting by taking specialist courses (e.g., statistics, common errors of interpretation) but reading the focal scientific publication could make an even bigger difference.  However there is mixed opinion about whether reporters would understand content of a scientific article (even with training) and whether it was even necessary for a reasonably good report.  Reporters should take account of the fact that science evolves and that scientists debate scientific data, models and interpretation over many issues of the scientific journal.

See Part 1 and Part 2 of the debate.