Lies, damn lies and science fiction

Press scaremongering over GM foods has led to calls to police science journalism. Why should we all suffer?

Being a science journalist, or indeed being any journalist who dares to write about science, may about to become a more precarious activity. Concern over the way in which some stories are reported - notably the GM food scares last year - has led to some of the most august institutions in the land calling for special rules for journalists covering science.

Being a science journalist, or indeed being any journalist who dares to write about science, may about to become a more precarious activity. Concern over the way in which some stories are reported - notably the GM food scares last year - has led to some of the most august institutions in the land calling for special rules for journalists covering science.

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons was the first to recommend a new set of professional guidelines for science journalists last year. The House of Lords' Select Committee on Science and Technology supported this view in a report published earlier this month. Now the Royal Society and Royal Institution have pitched in with their own ideas. If they get their way, science journalism may never be the same again.

At present all journalists are bound by a professional Code of Practice policed by the Press Complaints Commission, which covers accuracy, fairness, right of reply and so on. But these venerable bodies want an extra set of rules specifically covering science reporting.

It may sound like undue interference but, having mulled over their grievances, I am inclined to admit that they have a point, although I am not sure that their ultimate aim - a set of binding rules on the way science is presented by the media enshrined in a separate professional code of practice - is the right way of addressing the problem.

Concern over the way the media handle science is deep-seated in scientific circles. For the past couple of decades, an influential group of scientists have attempted to improve public understanding of science in several ways. These have included dialogues with science specialists in the media. The idea is that if we can understand them, and they can understand us, the public would be the ultimate beneficiary. However, although the mutual understanding of each other's problems is now better, many scientists harbour a continuing discontent with the way their work is portrayed.

These grumblings came to a head in February 1999 when the issue of GM food dominated the headlines for weeks. Many scientists felt under siege from what in the end amounted to a scare over unproven, and ultimately discredited claims about the alleged dangers of a GM potato that was in any case never intended for human consumption.

Although GM as a scientific issue had been around since the mid-Eighties, it was its sudden transformation into a political football that shocked the scientific community. What perplexed them was how some newspapers with an anti-GM agenda were ready to distort the science in order to make a political point.

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons, in its deliberations on the anti-GM coverage, cited two newspaper stories in particular which it claimed justified its recommendation of a special code of practice for science reporting. The first was in The Sunday Times on 25 April 1999, with the headline "Meningitis fear over GM crops". It was a six-paragraph story buried deep inside the paper about the risk of GM crops passing on antibiotic-resistance genes to meningitis bacteria, a startling claim. However, the story's brevity suggested someone senior on The Sunday Times did not really believe it.

The story, however, was taken up the following day by the Daily Mail, which splashed it on its front page with the outrageously inaccurate headline: "Scientists warn of GM crops link to meningitis". The paper lifted quotes from The Sunday Times story without checking their accuracy or context with the source in question, a scientist and government adviser who turned out to be livid with both papers for the way his work had been portrayed.

The fact is, he had not issued a warning about a GM link to meningitis, but had expressed concern about the now-abandoned practice of using antibiotic marker genes in some GM crops. But the damage was done. Eager for ammunition, the Commons' select committee judged that the articles demonstrated the need for a separate code "which stipulates that scientific stories should be factually accurate".

The point about these two examples is that although The Sunday Times article was confusing, you would be hard pressed to say it was inaccurate (the clever use of words like "fear", "pose", and "may" precluded that). The Daily Mail played the same what-if game of "nightmare possibilities" but the front-page prominence made the supposed risk seem greater. In reality, the actual risk dwindles into insignificance compared to the chances of spreading superbugs by the over-prescription of antibiotic drugs.

Risk of course has been at the very heart of the debate about science coverage in the media. If we have learnt anything from the BSE issue it is that science cannot offer categorical safety assurances about anything. One way of building on this breakthrough is to attempt to educate everyone - journalists, editors and the public - about the way risks are measured. For instance, scientists often talk in terms of "relative risks". Imagine a new study showing that sucking pens at work increased the risk of throat cancer by 30 per cent. This sounds dramatic but the risk is virtually meaningless without looking at "absolute risk". If throat cancer is rare, affecting say 1 in 100,000 people, then the new, absolute risk of 1.3 in 100,000 is hardly something to lose sleep over.

Such concepts are being tackled by the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, which is working closely with the Royal Institution as well as liaising with the Commons' committee to establish a new code of practice for science reporting. It includes an explanation of how risks are estimated and will publish a comparative risk table so that journalists can see how a new risk might fit in with everyday risks.

The research centre says it does not want to tell journalists how to to their job, but merely offer a framework they can choose to work to. "It matters because misleading information is positively dangerous; it can even cost lives," says Kate Fox, the centre's director. I have to admit she's right. The Pill scare of 1995, when newspapers emphasised a tiny increased risk of cancer, led many women into unwanted pregnancies and resulted in 29,000 extra abortions, which carried far greater risks to health than taking the Pill.

One suggestion is that whenever a journalist writes about a "scare", they might first imagine what effect their story could have on a friend or relative affected by the condition in question. It is something many of us do automatically but there is no harm in having this idea in written guidance. It might do some good.

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