Science journalists were subject to intense criticism in a debate between science minister Lord Drayson and Bad Science blogger Ben Goldacre on Wednesday night.
Current standards of ‘dodgy coverage’ are having an impact on public health, argued Goldacre, who is a medical doctor and writes weekly for the Guardian exposing inaccurate science journalism.
He attributed the problem to a ‘systems failure’ within media organisations, with editors making ill-informed decisions about how science stories are covered.
“We should get scientists to talk about stuff in their own way. There should be fewer science writers and more editors shaping academic ideas,” he said.
Goldacre also encouraged academics to promote good public engagement from their own departments and to start their own blogs. His key criticisms against the mainstream press were a reliance on press releases and a failure to engage with the ‘nerds’, he said.
“There is nothing out there for the people who did biochemistry 10 years ago and now work in middle management at Marks & Spencer,” he said.
But Drayson insisted there was an ‘admirable and improving standard’ of science reporting in the mainstream press, saying that Dr Goldacre’s criticism ‘risks undermining’ the trust between the academic community and the media.
Sensationalism was not necessarily a bad quality in science stories, Drayson added.
“The very nature of the media means that to get that communication, it has to cut through the noise. But sensationalism must be accurate and based upon good science – I don’t see them as mutually exclusive,” he said.
Drayson also countered criticism levelled against journalists interpreting academic ideas and particularly praised specialist writers: “It’s very important for us to support our journalists within their media organisations and recognise when they are doing a good job. They are vital to the general public and we need to have this access.”
Drayson refused to be drawn when the audience raised the issue of libel laws as a barrier to investigative science journalism.
After concluding the debate, however, he did tweet his e-mail address to help those who feel misrepresented by the media.
Shona Ghosh is a freelance journalist. She blogs at http://shonaghosh.com/.