Our podcast: From COVID-19 to climate: helping journalists understand science

In this episode we look at the relationship between scientists and journalists with Fiona Fox, from the Science Media Centre
government press conference

Government scientists attend a media briefing on COVID-19 at Downing Street in London, September 14, 2021. Justin Tallis/Pool via REUTERS

10th May 2022

The issue

With COVID-19 and climate change being two of the biggest issues facing the world in recent years, and for years to come, never has it been more important for journalists to have a firm understanding of the science driving them. Despite this, the goals of journalists and scientists can sometimes be at odds. Where science "values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting facts, numbers and being right," as science journalist Quentin Cooper writes, journalism prioritises "brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words, and being right now". In this episode of Future of Journalism, we speak to someone who has attempted to bridge the gap between science and journalism.

The speakers

Our guest Fiona Fox is the Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre. She works with journalists and members of the scientific community to ensure that accurate and evidence-based scientific information reaches the public and policymakers via the media. Fiona’s recent book ‘Beyond the Hype’, the inside story of science's biggest media controversies, looks at her first 20 years at the Science Media Centre, and demonstrates the vital importance of scientists talking to the media.

Our host Rasmus Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on changes in the news media, political communication, and the role of digital technologies in both.

The podcast

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The transcript

On editorial lines and misleading news 

Rasmus: So a lot of discussions of why we are sometimes led astray by what we hear and see start with populist politicians spreading false and misleading information, whether it’s shock jock television personalities, foreign states' information operations or nefarious actors on social media. Your book starts with the BBC, with Greenpeace and with the Guardian. Why is that where you started your discussion of the role of media and science and some of the biggest controversies for our time?

Fiona: Well, it’s not because I think the Guardian and Greenpeace and the BBC are the problem. It is because GM [genetic-modification] was what had to be one of the first chapters in this book. It was after media forays over MMR, GM crops and animal rights extremism/research. So GM definitely, the debate, the media coverage of GM was one of the key reasons the Science Media Centre was set up.

So it's the first story because the book is made up of stories that we've been involved in, however, I think it's actually really good the way you've asked this question because I think it isn't just the right wing populist press that brings an editorial line to some of these issues. And I think we see - and it is perfectly legitimate as you will know, and anyone who understands journalism knows that newspapers in particular, it's perfectly legitimate for them to take an editorial line. But it isn't the case that only the right-wing press therefore mislead the public. If newspapers take strong editorial lines and if, based on those editorial lines, they are selective about the kinds of stories they run, they are selective about the kinds of experts that they want to interview to confirm those editorial lines. Then my argument would be the public can often be misled.

And I think if that is a point you’ve taken from the book, then I think that's a good point. We saw it so clearly in the pandemic, where you've got your kind of Telegraph and Mail who were anti-lockdown, and you've got your Guardian, Independent, Observer, who were more likely to be pro-lockdown. And while I reject those representations of pro- or anti-lockdown,  because we're all anti all of it, I think they’re a bit short hand to say that there were very distinct editorial lines. And I could sit here and tell you, you know, of journalists from all of those newspapers who explicitly emailed us and said, ‘Can you get me someone who will support the government doing this, or we will condemn the government?’ and every time, like a mantra, we would email back and say, ‘No, that's not what we’ll do. We’ll put an open ended question to the list of senior scientists on our database and we will give you the answer. Whatever the answer is, it will be based on expertise. We're not going to find you the scientists that will back your editorial line.’

On fighting 'GM wars' with the BBC and Guardian 

Rasmus: I mean, I think you give examples here from the last years of navigating the pandemic and the infodemic around it. But for people who aren't necessarily across the case of the discussions around genetically modified foodstuffs in the early 2000s, or aren’t familiar with the form that debate took in the UK, I think it is worth just being very clear here that the language you use in the book is very strong, these are the GM wars. And you write that there are occasions where the public and policy makers were misled. And I highlight that because I think sometimes we tend to assume that there was a golden age of the media and that we now live in a sort of a fallen state. But this is all well before many of the things that tend to drive worries today about what might lead the public astray. And you quote Lord May, the then President of the Royal Society and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, talking about material that the BBC was putting out as historically inaccurate and error strewn pieces of propaganda. And this is quite strong language of an organisation that, unlike the newspapers, is not supposed to have a clear editorial line.

Do you want to say a little bit more about, you know, how you feel broadcasters, then and now, have navigated some of these very high stakes and complicated, but also quite divisive issues?

Fiona: Oh, I think - I mean, the quote that you use there from Bob May, who was Head of the Royal Society, and before that he was Chief Scientist to the government, was actually on the drama. And I would make that distinction because it was a two hour Saturday night drama about GM crops, which was, as I highlight in the book, which was written by the Editor of the Guardian who’d taken a short sabbatical to do something he wanted to do, which was write a drama. The mistake there, I think what went badly wrong there was that the BBC started to see this drama as a contribution to the public debate about GM.

And we would not have had anything to do with it. Drama is drama is drama, we watch all kinds of, you know, unrealistic mad movies every night on television. But the BBC were reaching out to the scientific community, and plant science institutes, that's how we got to hear about this, saying that we want this drama to kick off a really important debate within the British public about the possible impact of these crops. And the storyline was that GM was jumping across the species barrier from a crop in a field trial into animals and then into humans with catastrophic consequences. Something that, I mean, any good scientist will tell you that everything is plausible and theoretically possible, but very, very, very, very unlikely, including from the scientific advisor to the programme.

And yet they were doing something different with this drama. They weren't treating it like other dramas, and they in fact set up a big online discussion, this was the early days of this type of thing in the BBC, and educational discussion that would take place afterwards, a studio debate of experts who discussed the themes raised. And some of the media coverage that was coming out from the BBC beforehand as well was that this was an important drama that would be a contribution to debate.

So that was what was really alarming, I think. And if you are going to do that, then absolutely you have to go back to the kind of editorial values you expect the BBC to apply to news and information, which is around impartiality and objectivity and accuracy. And you are of course allowed to move away from those with drama, but this was some kind of hybrid. That's why it was such a big row, I think.

I think the tradition of newspapers being allowed and encouraged and part of their history to campaign to take an editorial line, to have campaigning objectives, does distinguish them from the news media. Whatever your criticisms are of board - sorry from broadcast media -whatever criticisms are of broadcast media, there is much more of sense in the broadcast media of sticking with objectivity and neutrality and impartiality. Whereas the newspapers aren't even aiming to do that.

On improving relations between science and journalism 

Rasmus: Yeah. I mean, and as you say, of course, the BBC would be the first to point out the difference between the BBC News and BBC drama, and I'm sure of course, that the writers of any piece of drama, whether by the BBC or others, would be very quick to point that out as well.

But again, I think what you described has some resonances with the pandemic in the sense that I think many of us will have had sensations of watching a piece of drama, Contagion or other shows or movies, and feeling that they helped us think about the situation in which the world was and perhaps overtime might also have influenced the conclusions that each of us came to about what that meant for us, or those who we care about, and for our communities.

But if we want to stick with news, I want to ask you to tell us a little bit more about the sort of model or principle of the work that you do at the Science Media Centre where you write in the book that ‘the media will do science better when scientists do the media better’. But also it seems pretty clear Fiona that you don't trust scientists to do better on their own, since you've set up the Science Media Centre to help us do it. So tell us a little bit more about how concretely you worked to ensure that this interface between scientists and media work better?

Fiona: Well I think that really does take me back to the beginning of this, and actually one person who emailed me just yesterday who’d read the book was around at the time, and was involved in the committee that was set up to help set up the SMC. And the point she made was that you were literally given a remit to improve the quality of science reaching the public through the media. That was how vague it was.

So that phrase that you’ve repeated, what we actually do, all comes from the period of one or two years of head scratching, and I mean really, how do you do that? How do you do that? And you must know this, Rasmus. I mean, the number of people whose objective in life, whose aspiration and his passion is to improve the media's coverage of any one of many issues. And we could all talk about it. We can all give lectures about it. We can all believe in it. How the hell do you do it? And I just - we sat around for a couple of years, I would say, saying ‘how do we get in’? And actually in some ways ‘the media will do science better when scientists do the media better’ was almost a quick and easy kind of apology for the fact that we can't change the media. There wasn't a single newspaper editor or broadcaster who would come and see me and do what I say, we didn't have that influence. We didn't have that control. We’re a small independent charity set up outside of the media. We weren't set up by the media at all. We were set up by the scientific community. They’re not going to listen to us.

So the head scratching really came out with the fact that we’re going to have to find what I call kind of pinch points, which bits can we get into? How can we do this on a practical level? How can we make a difference? And none of it can be grand statements or big lectures. If the stuff that scientists are giving to journalists isn't meeting their needs, it's irrelevant what we do. And we just didn't want to be another initiative of which there are many that do good things. There's so many good initiatives out there, but when you really look hard at them, they're not making the difference.

So the three things we do and based on that so, so how do we get in there? Well, there's breaking news, one thing that we have is breaking news. So every morning when we get up, we are not sure what will be the news that none of us anticipated. The example that comes to mind straight away, is the day that I woke up, turned on the radio and heard that a Chinese scientist had genome edited two babies, two actual babies. An approach that is not legal around the world, an approach that many stem cell scientists and researchers are interested in pursuing, to genome edit embryos to protect against serious illnesses, but it's not scientifically proven. There has been no global debate about the ethics of doing it, and it was way too soon.

So I jumped out of bed and I went to the Science Media Centre database, and we have 3,000 very senior top good quality scientists on that database. They have keywords next to them, so we put in all the right keywords and out comes a list of maybe 30/40/50 leading experts on this kind of area of science. And we say to them ‘it's absolutely critical that you drop everything and give us your reaction to this news’. And within an hour, very, very quickly, speed is key, we will probably have two, three, four from people like Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, who works at the Crick Institute, a leading expert. Kathy Niakan, who's the first scientist globally to apply for permission to the HFEA to do this kind of research. They are coming in thick and fast saying ‘this is wrong. This is unethical. This is too soon. It’s not scientifically safe yet. We haven't had the necessary ethical debates with the public’. And so that's really great for the journalists because a), they have a stock of quotes that they can copy and paste into their news, which then will be accurate, reliable, from very trusted experts. But b), they will see that out of the 12 quotes that the Science Media Centre has sent them from a real range of experts in different universities and research institutes, that the vast majority if not all are saying similar things. So they can safely say, as the headline of their article, the scientific community condemned the news from South Korea that this Chinese scientist has genome-edited embryos.

So that's just a little kind of proof of concept. We do that on an almost daily basis. And it's our way in, it’s our way of saying to the journalists ‘you will, like us, you’ll have only just woken up to this story. You will, as much as you're brilliant science journalists, or health journalists, or environment journalists, you'll be struggling to work out what are the right experts on this. How can I physically get to them in time to put something up very, very quickly’, because it's been on BBC so we've got to get something out. And you are helped to do that. So it's this really nice thing that we've worked out on, you know, how can we rely on the journalists using us? Then when they use us, what are we giving them that is going to improve the quality and make sure that what the public read or hear on the airwaves is from trusted sources, is reliable and accurate, represents the weight of scientific opinion or the weight of evidence. The media using us is the most important bit of this, if they’re not using it, it doesn't work, but if they use us, it’s then an opportunity to fulfil this goal.

And then we do similar things with our round-ups, it's a bit different because it's usually studies that are coming out in The Lancet or the BMJ or Science or Nature, and we have a bit more notice, and we will see these study at the same time that the journalists see it, which is often two or three days before the embargo lifts. And we'll be able to identify, sometimes we checked with the journalists which of these studies do you do you think your editors will want to splash on the front page as the cure? Coffee is the cure for cancer, or coffee is the cause of cancer, and again we go back to the keywords on the database and say to these scientists, ‘new study out in The Lancet saying coffee causes cancer’. And they will read the paper and get back to us and say actually, you know, ‘beautifully designed study from our friends in Oxford and Edinburgh University. However, it's a small observational study. It cannot prove X causes Y. And actually there are very good quality randomised control trials that have been conducted that actually show there isn't a link’.

So you'll just again your those quotes are then copied and pasted into that article. It’s not on the front page, it’s on page 6, because it's a lot more nuanced, a lot more measured. And it's a way of us improving the quality of the science that people are reading and consuming. So the whole - the answer to your question really is finding those little pinch points where we can make a difference. And that's why we have that phrase of that if scientists do this for us, if they take the time to read that study and give us a comment, if they get up in the morning and spend 20 minutes of their day reacting to breaking news, they will be used and they will be making a difference to the media.

On working outside of social media 

Rasmus: The first case we discussed of GM wars in the UK was the early 2000s, I think 2002. So the year before Myspace and LinkedIn was created, and two years before Facebook was created, whereas the genome editing case that you just described is much later. There are hundreds of millions or even billions of people across the world who use social media to access many kinds of information. How do you feel that this has changed the work of the Science Media Centre? I mean, I should add here of course that there are many who are quite worried about the reliability of some of the information that circulates on social media, and researchers, including ourselves here at the Reuters Institute, have found that in some cases relying on social media or messaging applications, for example during the coronavirus pandemic, was associated with higher belief in vaccine misinformation.

So how do you feel that the rise in popularity of social media has influenced the work that you do at the Science Media Centre?

Fiona: Well, I'm going to say something that I think will surprise some of your listeners. And then I'm going to try and defend it. We don't work on social media. The Science Media Centre doesn't do social media, and I know when I do talks to scientists I can see the ripple of utter dismay because, as you rightly say, it's social media where most of the disinformation circulates. The nature of social media, the nature of Twitter where these short messages, just everything that people fear about misinformation and, you know, ignoring nuances and not being able to explain the science properly, it is focused on social media, and yet we don't do social media.

But I'm going to defend it on the basis that we’re a very small team. So there are five press officers at the Science Media Centre. Five of us. And 10 years ago, your characterisation is absolutely right, I mean there wasn’t even 24/7 news media when we set up. We would work with a journalist who would be working on or two articles for tomorrow’s newspaper and they would have the whole day to write them. And it was usually 800 words or five [hundred] if it was the the tabloids. And over the next few years that print media turned into online media where they were writing five or six articles online immediately, instantly, and looking for - asking us - 'can you give us fact sheets so we can copy and paste the whole fact sheet to fill up the paper.'

So everything that, the proliferation of social media had changed, but also the way the mainstream news media operated had changed. So we are very aware of those changes, but there are five of us. And back to this point I was making about this incredibly kind of practical group of people who are saying ‘how and where can we make the difference?' We believe that - we believe in expertise actually, in science, we love it. And in our area of work, we love it. So we are actually not experts on drama on television. We are experts on the news. We're not experts on social media, we’re experts on the news.

But we think that - and you know, if somebody did give us a million pounds, I think we would acknowledge that social media is influencing the wider public and we would move into working with social media. No one has yet offered us a million pounds, we’re actually not allowed to take more than 5% of our running costs from anyone, so no one's allowed to give us more than £30,000. And it doesn't look like we’re going to expand soon.

So we made a choice about 10 years ago, on our 10th anniversary, we had a strategy review to maintain that focus, and to say to the scientific community - all of whom by the way can go into a university or a research press office, you'll find a completely different answer. They have moved exactly the opposite way. They've moved away from what they call, in a negative way, a 'media first approach.' 'We no longer do a media first approach. We have embraced, you know, our website, creating content, using social.' So a lot of press teams in universities and the rest of science are more focused on social media than they are on mainstream news media.

What we say to them is we understand now that your skills in terms of news media have been slightly diluted because of the direction you've gone in, come and use us when and if you feel the need, and actually that couldn't have been a more sound decision that we made than in the pandemic, where as your research showed at the Reuters Institute, people were coming back to mainstream news media in droves, as a more trusted source. So they were still consuming social media and they were enjoying themselves and they were all sharing it. But in terms of you know, we have journalists who were saying ‘I did an explainer yesterday about a modelling, an Imperial modelling data and got three million hits’, you know. Something they’ve never had before.

So we maintain that expertise in news media, and a lot of people came back to us for that. So I think - and I think also Rasmus again, just not so much with your Reuters [Institute] hat on, but one of the things I found very interesting about the recent Royal Society report about misinformation on the internet was a point that jumped out at me that actually one way that a lot of people talk is to kind of ban misinformation or somehow eradicate misinformation from the social media networks. Another one is to create this positive communications ecosystem in which good, accurate evidence-based science is proliferating, and we see our bit of that as the mainstream news media bit of that. Many of the stories that end up on social media come from mainstream news media.

So if we can focus all our energies on making sure that the mainstream news media is covering science in an accurate, robust, rigorous, measured way, then that will feed into social media.

On the tension between science and journalism 

Rasmus: That’s a nice segue into the last question, I'd like to hear your thoughts in closing here, which is that while I think all scientists are full of admiration when they see complex scientific work presented well in the news media, it’s perhaps also fair to say that sometimes when scientists choose to express themselves on social media, for example, it’s also in part because of a disappointment or discontent with how science is sometimes covered by the mainstream media. I'm a scientist. I work every day with journalists from around the world and it's a pleasure and a privilege. It often strikes me how, at the same time, these two tribes of scientists and journalists have a lot in common. Both of them are committed to seeking truth, and reporting it, even if the nature and pace of the reporting is rather dramatically different between the two of them. But they're also really very different in many ways.

And you highlight this, of course, throughout your book. In part you use a quote from Quentin Cooper, a science journalist who used to work at the BBC, who writes that "Science values detail, precision, the impersonal, the technical, the lasting facts, numbers and being right. Journalism," Cooper's own profession, "values, brevity, approximation, the personal, the colloquial, the immediate, stories, words, and being right now". And as he concludes, ‘there are going to be tensions’. What do you see in your own work, recognising the commonalities and shared mission to some extent? What do you see as the biggest tension between science and journalism?

Fiona: I think - I love that quote and I particularly endorsed the last bit of that quote. One of the main aims of the Science Media Centre has been to encourage the scientific community to have mutual respect. So there's been a lot of snottiness, a lot of sniffiness about what you just described, because they do all of those things, because they have brevity, because it'll be imperfect, because they have to have it now, that they are inferior to what we do. We will spend two years on the scientific paper, they will, you know, spend a couple of hours writing that up. Therefore we are better than them.

So one of the things I want to say is that we - I think one of our successes has been to encourage mutual respect. That is their job. That is their trade. That is their craft and it is what it is. The fact that you spent two years on this research paper, makes science wonderful. But it doesn't make it better. So how about that we have this mutual respect?

In terms of your question about why the tension lies, I still think it is this thing about news, I suppose, the theme of this this discussion, the newness. So editors and journalists still see that if it's new, it's significant. And that is really, really not - I was going to say not always the case. I think it's not often the case. By 'new,' what that means is a journal have published it, and it's a new study. And yes, it is a new study. But when often, when we email and say, ‘can you give us a comment on this study’? One of the things I often notice is there are six people saying 'There's nothing new here'. I remember in the early days kind of scratching my head, ‘If there's nothing new? How did this piece of science get funded? How has it been published?’ And what you discover, of course, is that it's not very new. It's not scientifically, significantly new, but it's one other way of asking the question. So you will have the question, 'Does coffee cause cancer?/'Does coffee cure cancer?' And then you might have a slightly different question, 'Does Colombian coffee cause cancer or cure cancer?' Does Colombian coffee drunk during the night have a diff...' - so there’s small incremental differences. And that is exactly what science is. When you’ve asked the question in 100 different ways, and kept asking it and kept refining it, you have something called the body of evidence and that's good.

You know, my husband always says to me ‘why should I believe scientists when they, you know, one says red wine is bad for you, and one says red wine is good for you’? But if I took any two studies, one would be saying red wine is quite good for the heart if you have one glass a night, and the other is saying five glasses of red wine is not good for your overall health. So it's not that they're both asking exactly the same question coming to completely different conclusions, and therefore we should disregard them. We should want scientists ask the questions in lots of different ways, but that's the bit where it just feels to me like, still, the news release arrives and it's in The Lancet, or it's in the BMJ, or it’s in Science or Nature, there’s a news release, therefore it’s significant. And the editor says, ‘right, big new study now’. Even if the word significant does not apply to that because it is in fact like I was saying earlier, we - statins, this was such an issue on satins, it took years, it took ten, twenty years. But there was huge randomised controlled trials, conducted all over the world, multicentre, the amount of data where they were searching in these trials for side effects of this drug. And they found very small side effects. It is there but it's very small.

Fast forward a couple of years and some university does a little observational study that shows 20% of people get side effects from statins. But it’s observational so you can't prove it. But that is considered 'new evidence shows that statins give you-' and there’s no comparison between quality and significance of this small study, which cannot prove one causes the other to the evidence we've already looked at. But it is seen as the same in the news room.  

And that, if you look at these third party round-ups, quite often what they're saying to the journalist is actually this might be new to you, but it's not significant news. And our favourite days at the Science Media Centre is when a journalist writes and says ‘thanks for that. Based on this, I’ve asked the editor not to run this story.’

Rasmus: I mean, that's an incredibly important part of journalism, of course, because editing is also making decisions about what not to run. So I think a powerful reminder of the challenges of making the interesting significant and the significant interesting, but also of course, a reminder that, you know, scientists have a huge responsibility to make themselves available individually or through the Science Media Centre, or your sister institutes across the world, to help journalists do their reporting and inform the public about science and the implications of scientific findings for society.

Thank you very much Fiona for joining us today.