Medicine, standards and the media

News of the World final issue

The media is engaged in a bout of breast-beating over standards. It may be entertaining, but it ignores some fundamental questions about how our media works. Put simply, standards are expensive. Who’s going to pay?

The frenzy over phone-hacking shows the extent to which some tabloid journalists would go for an exclusive story. The BBC commissioned a report into its own science reporting, which concluded that the corporation at times took ‘balance’ to ludicrous extremes. And the BMJ’s investigations editor wrote a much-noticed post about how to improve the quality of science journalism.

There are common themes. The pressures on newspaper journalists, at a time when circulations are falling, are greater than they’ve ever been. Without excusing the moral blindness at NOTW, the pressure that reporters would be under to maintain its position as the best-selling Sunday paper must have been immense. I can imagine how people grasped at any tool at their disposal, however reprehensible.

As circulation falls, and advertisers drift away, newspapers have less to spend editorially. They have fewer reporters, and those they employ are likely to have less experience and expertise. Specialist reporters, like the often splendid science journalists at papers like the Guardian and the Times, cost more. They’re the ones who know how to ask the difficult questions, like whether newly-published, controversial research is actually any good. They can spot when research results are flimsy, or biased, or out of kilter with everything else we know about a topic. But it’s far cheaper to employ keen new graduates who can turn around a press release and jazz it up with a quote from the researcher.

And the reporters who do want to dig around a story know full well that if they don’t publish before their rivals, they’re the ones who’ll be in trouble. With 24-hour publication on the web, that means that you need to have your story ready to go at the instant the embargo on the research is lifted. Too bad if you’ve not been able to get hold of a copy of the original research to scrutinise, or speak to the top expert on the subject.

None of this is by way of excuse. If journalism is for anything, its for asking the awkward questions, having a suspicious mind, refusing to take a story at face value. As science writer Ed Yong comments on the BMJ piece, journalists shouldn’t be ‘passive observers’ but ‘the final filter that stops misinformation from reaching the public’.

There’s a lot of discussion on the net about whether that role has been taken over by science bloggers, or whether its something still done by ‘conventional’ journalists. That seems a false distinction to me, and irrelevant. If you’re writing about science in the media, you do so because you want to add to the debate. Some people do it well, some less well. The forum is not the point.

What does matter for the future of science in the media is how to fund people to do it properly. If the public at large won’t pay for science reporting (be it online subscriptions, through taxes for the BBC, or handing over cash for newspapers), and the advertisers have all disappeared to Google ads, and Mr Murdoch will no longer subsidise his quality newspapers with Sky Sport money – what happens?

Without wanting to be morbid, I think we could be about to find out. There are some great bloggers out there dissecting science for love, not money. But relying on their continuing goodwill seems unreasonable. The mainstream media are restricted, more and more, to what the researchers themselves decide to tell us (see Margaret McCartney in the BMJ on how the media reported a recent acupuncture study).

There are plenty of ways we can improve standards of science reporting (and other reporting) in the media. But they don’t all come for free.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting piece. News has always been subsidised, but as you point out, the old sources of subsidy – like small ads or people buying a paper because of that one columnist they like – don’t work any more. Support from other parts of a business, such as Sky Sports (or Auto Trader, for that matter), will only happen in organisations that have a huge institutional commitment to serious news.

    One possibility is a closer relationship between the media and advertisers, with more of a sponsorship model (which will bring its own ethical quandaries). I think we’re also starting to see a change in the media’s relationship with its audience – it’s revealing that the Guardian is currently running ads saying ‘support the Guardian’, not ‘buy the Guardian’.

    A second, and not mutually exclusive, possibility is that automated ads will allow for a more distant relationship between ads and content. Could there be a future where you get a payment from Google because a million people read a blog post of yours that went viral?

    But even if the business models get worked out, we’re still in a world where there’s going to be more and more writing, more and more videos, more and more… stuff. Outlets will still need to decide whether to get attention by earning the trust of their audience, or by gossiping, scaremongering, and attention grabbing.

    Oh, and this (http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2011/07/we-need-the-new-news-environment-to-be-chaotic/) is very good.

  2. Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, has a typically provocative and interesting take on this in his blog, http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2011/07/26/richard-smith-scientific-communication-is-returning-to-its-roots/. Well worth reading.

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