NMA Highlights Leading Institutions’ Backing For Media Coverage of the Sciences

The News Media Assocation has highlighted to government comments from leading academic and scientific institutions hailing the role of the media in reporting on the sciences and the “vital role” broadcasters and newspapers play “in promoting science to the public.”

In a letter to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Jo Johnson MP, the NMA refers to submissions from leading scientific institutions to a Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into science communication and engagement, highlighting the many positive comments about relations with the media.

In its evidence, Research Councils UK reported that it had a “positive relationship with media” adding that “the UK’s mainstream media plays a vital role in promoting science to the public, and the existence of specialised science, health and other research correspondents in major outlets is the envy of many other nations.”

The Academy of Medical Sciences said that “fortunately, the UK has a long history and enviable reputation of science broadcast and journalism with regular coverage of novel discoveries, and most scientists report positive interactions with the media.”

Evidence from the University of Cambridge testified that “specialist reporters reviewing original research and following up on leads is common” adding that included reporters for mid-market and popular national newspapers.

Pointing to these and other comments from leading institutions, the NMA goes on to criticize the committee’s final report which it says ignores the expert evidence and instead choses  to accuse the media of “wilfully distort scientific findings” without any evidence for this claim. 

“Anyone reading the report would be surprised to learn that most of the written submissions from research universities, scientific foundations and associations of professional scientists were generally positive about the role of the media, with several major stakeholders saying that the UK’s science media is the envy of the world,” the NMA said.  

“In addition to not reflecting the written evidence, the report omits to mention any of the ground-breaking investigative and campaigning journalism carried out over the years by the  British press on science, health and the environment.”

The NMA cites examples such as the Sunday Times four-month investigation uncovering  Andrew Wakefield’s bogus claims about MMR and a link to autism, the Guardian’s award-winning coverage of the 2014-2016 ebola outbreak, and the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail’s scrutiny of the Liverpool Care Pathway for the Dying Patient which brought about the urgent review and replacement of that programme.

In its report, the Committee urged the government to “ensure that a robust redress mechanism is provided for when science is misreported,”  and noted that “the Leveson Report recommended a new—yet to be enacted—independent statutory body, to replace the Press Complaints Commission.”

In its letter to government, the NMA explained that a new self-regulatory body had been established in the form of IPSO, with powers to mediate complaints and if necessary order corrections and clarifications.

The NMA added that a press regulator cannot be expected to resolve scientific disputes, not least because very often there is no consensus among scientists themselves. Its role is to assess whether sufficient care has been taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to establish whether a distinction is clearly made between comment, conjecture and fact.”