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From deep ignorance to sharp questioning – SMC and the difficulty of science reporting

Jussi Ahlroth writes:

"Science reporting is characterised mainly by deep ignorance," fired off Fiona Fox, director of the London-based Science Media Centre (SMC) in her seminar on reporting science in mass media.

Fox is in a unique position to make such a statement. She runs the SMC, which is dedicated to getting scientists to talk to the media and making sure the media find the right scientists. Fox summarised the SMC's philosophy: "We'll get the media to do science better when scientists do media better." The issue is vitally important, since 90 percent of people still get their science from mass media.

The SMC was founded in 2002 - "after stuff got wrong", Fox said. She referred to the media coverage of such cases as BSE and genetically modified crops, where the bad quality of science reporting in mass media misguided public opinion. Amidst the downfall of these cases everyone was blaming each other. "The scientists blamed the media for all their woes, and all the journalists were calling the scientists a pain in the ass, unable to speak in the media', explained Fox.

SMC put the issue to the scientists in this manner: "If you don't do it, someone else will. Better that it is a scientist." Initially the SMC was content just to find scientists who were good in television.

"We have a more sophisticated screening process now", Fox said. "We try to get the scientists who are referred to in peer journals."

Fiona Fox said the SMC does not have a line and it does not concern itself with possible conflicts of interest. She said if someone for example called the SMC and said that a particular scientist, who they had recommended to talk on TV about a medicine, actually had a share in a drugs company, they would not do anything about it. "If they are well known and respected scientists, we trust their integrity."

The SMC was set up by the Royal Society. It is funded by eighty different organisations, and according to Fox, is not linked not to any of them. It receives approximately £2-3,000 a year from each funder, and the whole budget is about £350,000 a year. In the SMC database are the names of about 3,000 scientists and 700 press officers. The SMC does not pay the scientists they use, and asks their institutions to pay for their travel costs.

Fiona Fox stressed that the SMC is not a press complaint agency, nor are they press officers. She outlined three main strategies the SMC employs.

One is to react quickly, when a science-related, potentially problematic piece of news is published.

Second is to look at scientists' results before they are handed to the media and tell the researchers which of the discoveries will make headlines. A third strategy is arranging media briefings, where the scientists can set the agenda.

An important example of a media briefing was an event the SMC arranged on the 4th of February this year, titled "Where now for climate science?"

It was to deal with the frenzy raised by the ‘Climategate’ case – when emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit were stolen and made public in 2009. The emails seemed to show that climate scientists had tweaked or even manipulated their findings to support the theory of climate change. The story was all over the media, but the scientists were conspicuously absent.

"At this difficult time, scientists said they do not want to talk about climate change right now."

The SMC arranged an emergency background briefing with climate change scientists. After that, they invited the science journalists to a media briefing and had the scientists tell them straight what we really know about climate change and what we don't know.

Climategate had at least one positive result according to Fiona Fox. "Up to Climategate, journalists enjoyed the alarmism around climate change reporting and took in all the findings they were presented with, without trying to understand them. After Climategate, the journalists became more sharp and questioning."