On 9 July, at the invitation of
the European Group on Life Sciences, about 40 high-level journalists
and researchers sought to clear up mutual misunderstandings by trying
to take a cool, hard look at the demands of their respective professions.
If the majority of journalists are to be believed,
the press does not neglect science. Science is regularly in the
headlines and most quality dailies have weekly science supplements
or pages. 'Last year we published nearly 600 articles on stem cells
and 300 on cloning, as well as devoting several pages to decoding
the human genome,' explains Holger Wormer, a science journalist
with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. 'As an indication of
how aware readers have become of these issues, we can now see advertisers
picking up on them and inventing the pleasure gene.'
Stirring up public feelings
Meanwhile, the scientists speak of exaggeration and distortion.
One such example concerns the views of the British doctor Andrew
Wakefield who believes that the combined measles, mumps and rubella
vaccine could be a cause of autism. His claims created quite a stir
in the British press. As a result, a number of parents decided against
having their children vaccinated. 'The media fuelled the doubts
and uncertainties,' protests Bill Durodié, a researcher who
is studying risk management at New College Oxford. 'There must,
of course, be the opportunity to express marginal scientific
opinions, but when such views cannot be based on repeated experiments
they should be studied more closely by the peer group before being
unleashed on the public.'
In Italy, a study of press articles and television
news reports on biotechnologies published in 2001 also highlighted
many shortcomings. 'The quality of information on genetically modified
organisms remains insufficient,' believes Francesco Sala of Milan
University. 'With a few exceptions, there is a lack of accuracy
in articles sometimes confusing proteins and genes, GMOs and radioactivity,
and with many omissions. Too often opinions are presented before
giving the facts, thereby playing on public emotions. Imagine the
effect of mentioning "radioactive pasta obtained from wheat
subjected to ionising radiation". This method went out of use
50 years ago,' Sala points out.
Goals and deadlines
What do the journalists say? According to Geoff Watts of the BBC,
'these are two professions which do not necessarily share the same
goal. The press does not act in the interests of science but in
the public interest. The journalist first asks if his subject is
going to grab the attention of his reader or listener and not if
it is essential to enlighten society.'
The very essence of these two approaches is also
quite different. 'Journalists are under constant pressure, bombarded
with new information all the time,' points out Cristina Ferri, correspondent
for Le Scienze, the Italian version of Scientific American.
'Each news item raises questions which must be answered that same
day to meet the deadline for the next edition.' This is a long way
from the world of research where finding the answers can take years
and nothing is published until the process of peer review brings
the stamp of approval from fellow scientists.
The Swedish doctor Ragnar Levi suggested that
a similar system should be applied to the press, but it is hard
to see how it could work in practice given the time pressures under
which journalists work - and their fierce commitment to 'freedom
of the press'.
Jumping on the bandwagon
Nevertheless, Kornelia Smalla, a researcher at the Federal Centre
of Biological Research for Agriculture (BBA) in Berlin, feels she
has often been betrayed: 'We have tried to get our results reported
but they have been interpreted very badly. Sometimes, even if the
article itself is quite accurate, the headlines are misleading.'
'When we are interviewed about a discovery, we would like to be
able to read the articles before publication,' adds Pascale Cossart
who is studying interactions between bacteria and cells at the Institut
Pasteur. 'But journalists can be very sensitive about that.' Alicia
Rivera, a journalist with the Spanish daily El Pais, has
no problem when 'scientists correct a factual error in an article',
but will not tolerate any interference when it comes to presentation:
'let the journalists do their job'. This is essentially the almost
unanimous response of British journalists to the proposal to draw
up guidelines, following a House of Lords’ report on science
in the media.
Apart from the sometimes superficial or sensationalist
nature of press reporting, another frequent criticism is the habit
of jumping on the bandwagon. 'Once several media have reported on
a given subject, the others then usually follow,' admits Catherine
Vincent, a journalist with the French daily Le Monde. 'These
subjects are often suggested first as a result of the very effective
communication strategy of major science journals such as Nature
and Science which highlight the most fascinating subjects
in their tables of contents.' Hence the impression that the science
pages in the leading dailies all have very similar content - which
benefits Anglo-Saxon research at the expense of work being carried
out in other countries which may be just as interesting.
Another consequence of this is that researchers
may have the impression that they are being contacted to back up
information obtained from elsewhere rather than to explain progress
in their own work. 'Around 80% of the information requests we receive
are of this kind – only 10-15% are about new discoveries we
have made,' estimates Olivier Hostens, director of external relations
at the Facultés Notre-Dame de la Paix in Namur (Belgium).
When pressed a little further, he also expressed some criticism
of the attitude of university scientific circles which, he believes,
often 'resist communication, especially as they do not depend on
the press for funding'.
Are researchers introverted?
According to Professor Derek Burke of the Institute for Food Research
in Norwich (UK), 'there is a danger of creating a false image of
science. The current critical period in relations between science
and society is the result of the same public mistrust of any authority,
whether politicians, the media or research.'
So is it time the scientists took the initiative?
Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre in the UK –
charged with making the research community's voice heard in the
media when 'science hits the headlines' – tends to think so:
'Scientists must make themselves available to the media to the same
extent as certain pressure groups or NGOs.' The latter are very
quick off the mark to make documents and contacts available to journalists
on the majority of 'sensitive' issues.
This view is shared by the journalist Bernard
Dixon, a microbiologist by training, who believes that 'scientists
and their organisations should be encouraged and helped to be more
proactive in their relations with media and society. They should
anticipate causes of public concern and not simply dismiss them
as irrational. Also, scientists make too little use of the opportunity
to express their views in newspaper articles or opinion columns.'
The study day also produced a number of suggestions
for possible ways forward: media training workshops for scientists;
meetings between researchers, the press and the public; the election
of European Union science ambassadors to promote contacts
between researchers and journalists; encouraging universities and
research agencies to use PR agencies to circulate their information;
and the launch of a prize for science journalism. These ideas will
serve as a basis for proposals to be submitted to the opinion of
communication professionals next October at the 2002 World Congress
of Science Producers in Berlin.
But will they be enough to renew dialogue between
science and society? No doubt not, or not unless they get to grips
with the problem in the long term, stresses David McConnel. A geneticist
at Trinity College, Dublin, he believes that: 'We must strike at
the root of the problem, and that means education. Without a minimum
of general scientific knowledge, without some grasp of how science
functions, younger generations will not understand the research
message at all. And it is these young people who are tomorrow's
politicians, decision-makers and communicators.' In the meantime,
dialogue between journalists and scientists must be based on mutual
knowledge and respect.
has announced the Commission's support for extending
the Science Generation project to Italy and
Sweden. Launched two years ago by the Fondation Aventis
and the Institut de France (http://www.science-generation.com/),
it aims to create – in the field of biosciences
– networks of scientists, students and journalists,
organise symposiums and opinion surveys, and hold debates
both on-line and in the field. Last March, 500 young
people, parents and teachers met at the French Senate
to vote in favour of setting up working groups to look
at topics such as science which is closer to everyday
life, schools more open to science and more accessible
scientific information. The experience will now be repeated
in Italy under the aegis of the Italian Federation of
Science and Technology Associations – FAST (http://www.fast.mi.it/)
– and in Sweden through the Royal Swedish Academy
of Science and Technology – IVA. (http://www.iva.se/).
It may spread to other countries through a partnership
with the Euro-CASE (European Council of Applied Sciences
and Engineering - (http://www.euro-case.org/)
network of 18 academies.
In November, during European
Science and Technology Week, the European Molecular
Biology Organisation (EMBO) will be awarding a prize
of €5 000 to a European researcher who, through
his involvement in communication activities, has contributed
to a better understanding of life sciences by the public.