Inaccurate science stories will not go away unless more scientists talk to journalists

Misleading or incorrect science stories regularly appear in the media. 

Most of these inaccurate stories appear not because the journalists have any axe to grind but because they do not have a sufficient grasp of the topic and don’t speak to the right people. Some may not have bothered to contact a scientist, but many will have tried and found the ones they called weren’t available or couldn’t help within the very tight timeframe; often only an hour or two. 

There are several organisations tackling this problem of getting accurate, evidence-based stories into the media. The RSC and the Royal Society can find experts to comment on a story or provide helpful background explanation.

The Science Media Centre is another. It was first mooted in response to the House of Lords science and technology select committee’s report on science and society in 2000. The centre focuses on the stories that hit the headlines in national newspapers. These stories are often covered by non-specialist reporters and the centre aims to be proactive in getting information and key contacts to the journalists. The centre also trains scientists who are keen to engage with the media but who have no experience of doing so. 

Last month, Sense about Science (a charity that promotes an evidence-based approach to scientific issues) published a briefing document, Making sense of chemical stories, aimed at lifestyle journalists writing for women’s, supermarket and health magazines. The document addressed six of the most prevalent misconceptions about chemicals in lifestyle commentary, including: man-made chemicals are inherently dangerous; you can lead a chemical-free life; and it is beneficial to avoid man-made chemicals. The document also explains the language used by chemists.

This is the first time chemists have targeted this sector of the media. There was considerable interest from journalists, and Sense about Science is getting a couple of calls a day as a result of the document, from journalists asking for background information or help with stories. 

These initiatives are a start but are clearly not enough. There are still plenty of journalists, especially in regional papers and on local radio stations, for whom there are no such services. 

Much more could, and needs to, be done. It’s not just about funding more groups to provide these services or expanding those that exist. More scientists need to be put themselves forward to talk to the media, either directly, or through organisations such as the RSC or the Science Media Centre. Employers, universities and societies, such as the RSC, need to encourage scientists to come forward. 

The Science Media Centre has 1500 scientists on its database. That may sound like a lot, but for an individual topic they may only have a few contacts to call on when a story hits the headlines. These people have to be willing and able to drop everything and spend the day doing interviews.

Journalists have deadlines to meet. They need an expert who is able to talk immediately and who will say something strong. If there is no one available, the story won’t go away, it will just be written without that expert input. 

Karen Harries-Rees