‘Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence’ is the sentence that best sums up the key message of the Science Media Centre’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, set up by government to investigate standards and ethics in our newspapers.
While I believe that much science coverage in our daily papers is good quality, especially when delivered by specialist science journalists, the Leveson Inquiry has given all of us a license to step back and reflect on what changes would make things better.
And that’s where I get back to this phrase ‘extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence’. Too often, our newspapers do the exact opposite. For them, the more extraordinary the claim, the more the rush to publish and the more prominent the story should be.
A few years back when a succession of maverick IVF doctors and even a religious sect claimed to have cloned the first human being, the entire media rushed to splash the story on their front pages. Not only were the claims totally untrue, they were also deeply damaging to scientists desperately trying to win public support for therapeutic cloning.
Two other examples: First, reports several years ago that a young child had been fed to death. It appeared to confirm what one doctor had told the media: that parents would start to outlive their children because of obesity. But it was not true. The child's clinician contacted the SMC to inform us that the child had a genetic defect and it was totally wrong to attribute this death to overfeeding by parents. On this occasion the newspapers did run pieces correcting their original story – one under the heading ‘Big Fat Lie’ which blamed MPs for the error.
Secondly, the now-notorious claim of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, which seriously damaged a vaccination programme and led to the first deaths from measles in many years.
And of course we have the almost daily claims that we have discovered ‘the gene for’ or the ‘cure for’ or ‘cause of’ our most common diseases. Many of these headlines are based on good scientific studies carried out by respected researchers and published in peer reviewed journals. But they are exaggerated and sensationalized.
Hopes for Leveson
Checking and double checking extraordinary claims need not see science stories excluded from our newspapers. Science delivers amazing new findings daily, but only a few deserve the front page splashes that almost always mean exaggerated claims. One commentator has suggested that all journalists using the word 'cure' or 'breakthrough' should agree to publish a long-term follow-up – a 'batting average' – of how many 'breakthroughs' actually panned out. It would be an interesting experiment!
The SMC’s evidence calls on Leveson to recommend new guidelines on science reporting that could be drawn up by the specialist science reporters themselves. These could include the need to put each new study into a wider context, state the size and stage of the study, and use the actual numbers as well as percentages when communicating an increase in risk. The guidance would help science reporters to win battles with the general news editors who are often the ones keenest to sensationalise a story, and would also allow a newly strengthened PCC (or its replacement) to adjudicate on future complaints.
For years we have been told that the sub-editors write the headlines long after the science reporter has left for the day, and we should just accept that this may mean a sensational headline on an otherwise accurate story. In an era when those headlines are now tweeted to millions of people, raising unnecessary fears or false hopes, Leveson has given us hope of something better.