“The misrepresentations … the inability to understand basic facts and report them in a logical and coherent way.”

That was Mark Latham decrying the state of Australian political journalism in a recent column for The Australian Financial Review. Those words might just have easily come from scientists, frustrated at media outlets for inaccurate reporting of their research.

With the recent losses of specialist science writers from our media landscape, Australian science journalism risks going the same way. So scientists are getting involved to improve the quality and diversity of science coverage in the media.

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One of the biggest gripes is the media “dumbing it down”, says Dr Micaela Jemison, a bat ecologist from the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment’s Arthur Rylah Institute.

Jemison is one of three scientists (disclaimer: I am also one of them) acting as guinea pigs for a media internship program run by the Australian Science Media Centre (ASMC). The internship involves scientists spending a few weeks working in the newsroom of a publication, with knowledge hopefully being transferred in both directions.

Australian science publication COSMOS has run a media internship program for scientists since 2005, but the ASMC program places scientists in mass media outlets with a broad audience.

Jemison told Crikey that her internship at The Age gave her an appreciation of “the skill behind actually being able to communicate science clearly”.

Overblown claims of scientific breakthroughs or disease cures, and unreasonable criticism of science and scientists in the media, misinform the public, breed scepticism and erode confidence in science. This can have potentially devastating consequences.

Imagine if scientists’ calls for action to save the planet from devastating climate change went unmet until … oh, hang on a minute …

Scientific and technological advances are progressing at breakneck speed but the media’s ability to keep up is diminishing.

Fairfax and The Australian recently lost specialist science journalists Deborah Smith and Leigh Dayton, who both took redundancies. There are few other specialists left in Australia’s media, and even fewer science qualifications among them.

Outside of the ABC science team members (Sarah Clarke, Darren Osbourne, Stuart Gary, Anna Sallah, Robyn Williams), science specialists in the mainstream media are few: Bridie Smith (The Age), Nicky Phillips (The Sydney Morning Herald), Clare Peddie (The Advertiser), Malcolm Holland (The Daily Telegraph), Matthew Cawood (Fairfax Rural Press) and Stephen Cauchi (The Sunday Age).

In the absence of science expertise within their organisations, media outlets are relying on press releases and science communication organisations.

All of Australia’s large research organisations have media offices, charged with getting stories out of the lab and into the wider world. Sometimes, though, these offices manage to mangle scientific messages. Crikey has heard stories of press releases — pulled at the last minute at the insistence of researchers — that completely misrepresent research findings in their attempts to turn complicated science into copy-ready media fodder.

Crikey contacted the media offices at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University to gauge the level of scientific expertise of the middle men and women. They all have staff with science qualifications, including masters degrees and PhDs. Perhaps in the future, the sort of inaccurate and unbalanced scientific reporting that set back childhood immunisation programs by at least a decade — as highlighted in the recent Leveson report — might be avoided.

In its second submission to the Leveson inquiry, the UK Science Media Centre provided draft guidelines for science journalism that the report says are “commendable for their utility as well as their succinctness”:

  • State the source of the story — e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. — ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link
  • Specify the size and nature of the study — e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research — e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans — and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper — i.e. if “cupcakes double cancer risk” state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence — e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered
  • Remember patients: don’t call something a “cure” that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

Those guidelines should be helpful to all of those who write science — and read science — in the Australian media.

*Dr Timothy Moss spent a fortnight at Crikey as part of the Australia Science Media Centre’s internship program

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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