5th World Conference of Science Journalists

A huge pat on the back to the Niall Byrne and his team for putting on a brilliant 5th World Conference of Science Journalists. The debates were thought-provoking, the attendee list impressive and the entertainment (and wine) of excellent quality.
The presentations included the ins-and-outs of reporting on public health issues, bias in science journals, the challenges of climate change reporting, an update on quantum computing (which I think I understood about 30% of) … just to name a few things.
I found my previous understanding of the concept of ‘balance’ was challenged and eventually transformed after hearing how damaging it has been for the media to keep giving air-time to the anti-climate change lobby.
I used to think ‘balance’ meant presenting both the for and against views, but I’ve since realised that in the case of climate change, this perpetuates the impression that the scientific community is still in disagreement over whether climate change is real. In fact, there is almost total concensus amongst reputable scientists that climate change caused by human activity is real. The debate is now over what the results of this change will be.
The challenge of achieving ‘balance’ when reporting about health and in particular, public health issues was also discussed. How do journalists distinguish between reputable scientific opinions and the zealots? We bear a considerable burden of responsibility for the impact our reporting has on the public when it comes to such issues as immunisation, HIV/AIDS and obesity.
When the UK media went into a frenzy over claims the MMR vaccine caused autism, it led to a dramatic decline in childhood vaccinations, some children subsequently become ill with measles, mumps or rubella and a very successful preventive health strategy was thrown into disarray. A similar effect has been seen in Africa after rumours were spread about the polio vaccine. The backlash against that vaccine has seen a dramatic resurgence in polio that now threatens children all over the continent and has set polio control back by as much as 30 years.
But how, as journalists, are we to know when sensational claims are legitimate and when they are fringe? As Professor Chris Del Mar from Bond University suggested, resources such as the Cochrane Library provide a reputable and reliable update on the state of evidence on a wide range of health subjects. If a claim is made that drastically challenges reviews like these, it clearly indicates the need to seek second, third and even fourth opinions from recognised experts in the field.
We’re all working under the yoke that “if it bleeds, it leads” – no one loves scandal or controversy like an editor – but I’ve come to appreciate from this conference that giving voice to fringe-dwelling opinions lends them a legitimacy they would never have among the scientific and medical community. In the process, it sows the seeds of doubt in the public mind, which in the case of things like immunisation and climate change, we simply cannot afford to do.

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