How to safeguard science in an era of fake news

British member of parliament (MP) pledges for better science journalism.

“A plurality of perspectives takes precedence over accuracy. This is a dangerous environment to exist in.” Stephen Metcalfe, MP

Science and journalism don’t always see eye to eye. Scientific accuracy is often sacrificed in the quest for an enticing headline, but at a time when fake news is on the rise, high quality scientific reporting has never been more essential.

As the House of Commons science and technology select committee, which I chair, argues in its latest report, if the press is to maintain the public’s trust, journalists must demonstrate their commitment to clear and unbiased reporting of scientific facts – and be given the necessary support by policymakers to do so.

The idea that ‘science sells’ is not part of the average journalist’s lexicon. Add a sensationalist headline, and a political angle, however, and you can produce a trending and controversial piece of journalism that sparks debate – a result both for the media outlet and the journalist.

Science and journalism at odds

But while selling papers and driving online traffic is a media priority, it rarely aligns with the scientific endeavour behind the headlines. More often than not, scientists are looking to provide the public with greater clarity, rather than confuse or further mystify the topic of their research.

This phenomenon is nothing new. While the row over the MMR vaccine was making front-page news, such large numbers of parents decided to avoid vaccinations that the UK’s child immunisation programme was put at risk. Genetically-modified crops were long ago classed by the tabloids as ‘Frankenstein’ foods to be avoided at all costs, rather than a potential solution to sporadic famine and food poverty. We may never know if the burger fed to four year-old Cordelia Gummer during the mad cow disease crisis in 1990 was really safe to eat. What we do know is that there was a political and media motivation for it to be consumed.

Climate change has not escaped this treatment either. Media coverage of climate often gives equal prominence to opposing viewpoints, leading an uninformed public to believe that the evidence for and against has equal weight. A distinction must be made between impartiality and neutrality; between taking sides based on the evidence, and refusing to take sides at all.

Perhaps the most acute example is the number of everyday items claimed – rightly or wrongly – to have carcinogenic properties. Deodorant, vitamin E, chips, tomatoes and even Facebook have been reported in the UK media to increase your chances of developing cancer. Compare this to the number of reports on cigarettes and UV exposure – both well-known and proven causes – and you might be surprised.

Plurality trumps accuracy

As the ability to proliferate and share news increases, and our reliance on traditional media declines, we run the risk that a plurality of perspectives takes precedence over accuracy. This is a dangerous environment to exist in.

It would also be wrong to scapegoat the public for a lack of interest in science, or for not being able to understand the often complex concepts involved. The overwhelming majority of people in the UK have a strong desire to know how science affects their daily lives, but seventy-one per cent believe the media sensationalises science, and sixty-seven per cent say they have no option but to trust those governing scientific information. Tellingly, just twenty-eight per cent believe that journalists check their facts when reporting scientific matters.

In its new report on Science Communication and Engagement, my committee found that the rules around policymaking currently make it far too easy for ministers to use science selectively to either back a political aim or, worse still, to mask financial reasons for not taking sufficient action. We must never allow “the science is inconclusive” to become code for “we haven’t got the money.” The government’s rulebook on public consultation must ensure that ministers make it much clearer how they are taking scientific evidence into account independently of other political considerations.

We also found that where scientific evidence is wilfully misreported, procedures for redress and correction are deeply lacking. Media organisations, which hold so much influence and responsibility in this area, must take greater care to avoid false balance. Misreporting can also be linked to the news embargo period sometimes applied to scientific papers prior to their formal release. This limits the media’s ability to challenge any spin and review the facts. Editors, press offices and PR companies should not support this news management tactic.

These problems can be tackled. Science and journalism have shared objectives, to separate fact and opinion, and uncover truth on behalf of the public. An educated public is the cornerstone of a prosperous nation, and a vital tenet of our democracy. That is why it is more important than ever to reaffirm the role of facts and evidence in our media, and in our politics. We need a firm commitment by all those in the political sphere to pursue evidence-based policy making, rather than policy-based evidence.

©Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2017

Stephen Metcalfe is MP (Member of Parliement) for South Basildon and East Thurrock, and chairman of the House of Commons science and technology select committee. The committee’s new report on ‘Science communication and engagement’ can be read here.

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