Science and the Media

I went to a really interesting event this week held at Imperial College as part of their Masters Programme in Science Communication.  Not only did I meet @bordadoingles, but it was a great programme – with Guardian editor Alan Rushridge setting out his views on how science is (or should be) presented in the Media, and the Rector (an expert on epidemiology) detailing his own war wounds (he had been misquoted in the papers the previous day), and setting out how he felt Swine Flu was being misrepresented and played down by the Press.  The podcast is available here –

Professor Anderson set out the pressures faced by scientists wishing to get their research publicised via the media, and the difficulty in maintianing integrity in the face of pressurised journalists competing for space and a good story.  He pointed to pressures currently being placed on the World Health Organisation over swine flu, and questioned why it wasn’t all over the front pages even with the current focus on MP’s expenses and resigning Cabinet Ministers.  It will be interesting to see whether his predictions on the flu’s progression to pandemic status will come true.

I gained a lot of insight into the demands that digital media is affecting the press itself, and how The Guardian has a peculiar Trust Status which means that it can be much more innovative, and offer a greater depth than many newspapers and other branches of the media are able to.  In that respect, a good comparison can be drawn with the BBC, who have a very particular role and function to play in the public broadcasting sphere.  Alan Rushridge explored how the media’s role is changing as journalists increasingly become one of many news producers – the days of the “generalist” journalist are over and people expect much more detail and depth – the Guardian has addressed this through Comment is Free, and podcasting, with highly fragmented and interactive “deep sites”.   

In terms of the journalist’s responsbility to science, that was also interesting, with Rushridge taking, in my view incorrectly, the position that it wasn’t the journalist’s job to question the science, but rather to explore the personalities and funding etc.  Why shouldn’t the journalist question the science – I accept that the journalist is not there to examine every last detail of experimentation, but they should be able to assess the quality of the techniques and methods used, and translate this to an audience.  The MMR fiasco is a case in point here: having had training in research methods I am qualified enough to be able to comment on the reliability of the research method and sample size, so why not a scientific journalist whose role is to translate learning for the masses.

In any event, it’s an interesting time for journalism and time will tell just how much the “citizen” journalist and new media will change the face of traditional media which have already witnessed a sea change in the last decade.

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