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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Misguided or misunderstood?
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image Misguided or misunderstood?
RTD info special "Talking Science"
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  At a time when science is having to respond to genuine challenges facing society – climate warming, food crises, breakthroughs in the life sciences – its media image has become a vital issue. How can we forget the clichés of 'superficial and irresponsible' journalists and 'able but insular' researchers and facilitate dialogue between the press and science?
   
     
   

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.


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Science Generation

Commissioner Busquin 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.

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New Biopress prize

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.
http://www.embo.org/

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To find out more about biotechnologies and the press

European Federation of Biotechnology
http://www.efbweb.org/
Task Group of Public Perception of Biotechnology
http://www.efbpublic.org/
Coverage of biotechnologies in the Italian press: report by the Pavia observatory
http://www.osservatorio.it/cares_visual1.php?
pub=approf&num=1&visual=ok&ID=0000000004

Dossier on communication questions in Spain
http://www.biomeds.net/biomedia/
dossier_comunicacion.htm

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