Should Science Journalists Take Sides?

Should news be presented as a ‘view from nowhere’ or should science journalists bring in their own opinions when reporting science stories? That was the central topic of a debate last night at the Royal Institution, chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre. The panellists discussing the motion were Mark Henderson of the Times, Ceri Thomas, editor of the BBC R4 Today Programme, Steve Rayner, Professor of Science and Civilisation at Oxford University and Ed Yong, Information Manager at Cancer Research UK and a prominent communicator of science.

Mark Henderson viewed a science journalist’s job as absolutely to ‘second guess what’s right’ and to be as accurate as possible when reporting. There’s a fundamental difference between balance and fairness, he said. Science journalists should strive to be fair, but lending equal weight to both sides of an argument when the evidence suggests otherwise is misleading. Mark suggested that having an opinion is helpful to good journalism, making reporters go the extra mile to research and find out the truth for themselves. As long as opinions are transparent they can be a force for good.

Ceri Thomas argued fundamentally against the idea that science journalists should take sides. This should happen no more than a political correspondent should take a side in favour of a particular political party, or a sports writer report in favour of a particular football team. Science doesn’t deserve special treatment. Yes, journalism should take the side of reason and evidence, and yes, this will often be in science’s favour, but scientists get it wrong if they think that reason and evidence are all that matters: emotional and irrational factors matter too, in reality, and so science needs to stand its ground in arguments with these. When news outlets such as the BBC give too much credence to the emotional/ irrational however, that’s when they are getting reporting wrong.

Steve Rayner made some very interesting points about how policy debates have been re-framed as debates about the quality of the science over the years. He highlighted climate change negotiations as a particular example, arguing that by 1992 climate change science, although flawed, provided evidence which was at least as strong as that which Governments use to justify making decisions on monetary and defence policy. Since then society has been debating the quality of the science but actually what we are really debating is how to move forward with difficult and differing policy options. It’s not the case that ‘more and better’ science will solve the seemingly intractable problem of how to tackle climate change, and actually, Steve argued, framing the solution to the problem in one particular way – via the Kyoto protocol – which he described as the result of ‘collusion’ by scientists and policy-makers – has prevented more innovative solutions being taken forward.

Ed Yong agreed largely with Mark Henderson, arguing that if a journalist didn’t provide analysis and context for their science report, someone else would – in the age of blogging and twitter, when anyone can have an opinion. It is the duty of journalists to state where the consenus lies. You can get a plurality of views without these necessarily having to be at extremes and at odds with one another. Overall, Ed argued, transparency and ‘taking sides with the truth’ were the most vital qualities in a piece of science journalism.

Amongst points raised through a very interesting discussion with the audience, Alok Jha, science writer with the Guardian, asked Mark whether it was in fact appropriate for science journalists to bring their opinions into their writing. This was fine if this was a writer trusted and known by the reader, but what if you were reading the work by someone you hadn’t come across before: how could you know whether their work was objective? Mark maintained that adding interpretation from the journalist could get the journalist, and the reader, closer to a nuanced understanding of the truth. Overall, Steve Rayner argued, we need to create a society where the public and policy-makers can make informed judgements themselves about science news, through general scientific literacy.

Mark Henderson is organising two more events in this series -one on genomics and one a post-Comprehensive Spending Review Q and A with David Willetts, Science Minister (26 October). See the RI website for details.