Science reporting: is it good for you?
The Royal Institution in London was packed to the rafters last night (I know because I was in the rafters) with bloggers, academics, journalists, bloggers, science communicators and bloggers for the Drayson/Goldacre face-off (watch the full debate here or read New Scientist’s report).
Less rumble in the jungle, more grumble in the letters page of a peer-reviewed journal (come on, it half rhymes if you say it quickly).
The debate didn’t really set the world alight and neither of them strayed away from their (after numerous radio interviews) well-trod arguments. My issue, as ever, is the trouble with gender and on this Lord Drayson used a pretty annoying headline to illustrate his point on the benefits of sensationalism. The front page story from The Sun on HPV and cervical cancer has a killer headline…
What I found interesting is the sub-heading ‘ALERT TO ALL WOMEN’. To all those who read the Daily Mail, you will know that the Government has been rolling out a comprehensive HPV vaccine to girls and young women. The Daily Mail is running a series of scare stories about this continuing a rich tradition in anti-vaccination journalism.
(As an aside: If any of the researchers I know from my old alma mater who did some work on Cervarix and Gardasil are reading this, please do comment/link to your research).
One thing that this policy decision does is put the responsibility for sexual health again squarely with females. And before, you roll your eyes and exclaim ‘boys can’t get cervical cancer’, they can and do pass on HPV and they do get genital warts. I acknowledge that there is a cost-effectiveness argument but this call did get passed at the last BMA ARM – not the most rabidly feminist organisation I’ve ever come across.
My point is not to get into the ins and outs of the HPV vaccine, but more to take issue with Drayson’s, and to some extent Goldacre’s, view that sometimes ‘sensationalism isn’t such a bad thing’, that it can publicise an issue that should get a high profile. Drayson used the Sun headline above to illustrate the benefits of sensationalism. My concern is that there are negative fall-outs from such an approach to medical or scientific PR; namely, that sensationalist stories can reinforce and feed society’s prejudices, stereotypes and negative attitudes.
This is infuriating for those who campaign to challenge social attitudes whether on gender, race, immigration status, sexuality etc. It is hard enough to combat the Melanie Phillips’ and Richard Littlejohn’s of this world, without having scientists ‘proving’ that immigrants are coming over here stealing our women, eating our swans AND giving us HIV and TB.
I’m not advocating censorship, I’m pleading for responsible reporting. Sensationalism can and does regularly undermine scientific reporting of delicate and nuanced findings. This can both lead to health scares and dangerous health practices but can also feed negative stereotypes about social groups being diseased, stupid, promiscuous or all of the above.
However much we might point to outstanding examples of science journalism in certain papers, all newspapers are writing for their specific audience, influence their audience and have a political bias.
Plus there is a huge amount of research into the way people read newspapers and news online. Using eye-tracking and socio-semiotic research, we know that people tend to read the headline and first couple of paragraphs if you’re lucky (this is a fascinating article on some eye-tracking research). Which means that if you leave the caveats, the nuances or other statistical ‘health warnings’ to the end of the article – they’ll rarely be read.
Science reporting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in a society with historical legacies, prejudices, tensions and pretty low levels of scientific understanding and critical thinking. Journalists and scientists need to take responsibility for the presentation of findings (assuming it’s good research in the first place) that can fuel discriminatory or unhelpful attitudes.
I only picked on one small aspect of the talk, coz I knew the blogosphere would do the rest. Here’s some more on the talk and arguments:
From Ben Goldacre himself
Basheera Khan at The Telegraph
And many many more.