Training journalists in evidence and statistics

The Science Journalism Programme was set up by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) in 2010. Through the programme, scientists and statisticians volunteer to deliver workshops to journalism students and professionals across the UK. Workshops cover concepts such as scientific methods, peer review and statistical uncertainty in order to equip journalists with the skills to correctly interpret and report on science stories. So far the programme has trained over 600 journalists and students from a wide array of institutions including the Guardian, the BBC, the Times and numerous universities.

At the end of August, a number of other John Innes Centre PhD students and I attended a training session run by the RSS in order to become a volunteer on the programme. Since attending the training day I have delivered workshops to professional journalists at the Manchester Evening News, and to journalism master’s students at City University London.

What is the RSS?

The RSS was founded in 1834, and is now one of the world’s most renowned statistical societies with over 6000 members. The society has a number of aims, and one of these is to promote the use of statistics, data and evidence for the public good. It was under this remit that the Science Journalism Programme was established.

How will the Science Journalism Programme benefit the public?

There are endless examples in the media of the misreporting of science, including various high profile instances that have had a significant impact on public opinion, health and wellbeing. A familiar example used to illustrate this to journalists in the workshops is the reported link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This story received widespread news coverage, but the lead author on the paper had acted dishonestly; there was actually no evidence in the original paper that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The paper was later retracted, and a subsequent study showed that the vaccine does not cause autism. However, the damage had already been done, and uptake of the MMR vaccine plummeted, coinciding with an increase in measles within the UK population.

Another perhaps more relevant example for this blog is that of genetic modification (GM). In the media, GM has been sensationalised, purporting that GM foods could have negative consequences on human health and the environment. In fact, if used correctly, the development and use of GM crops could have substantial benefits for both, through increasing the nutrient contents of food and cutting down on pesticide use. The impact of this misreporting has been negatively felt within the research community, where current rules and regulations can make it difficult to progress with genetic modification.

Whose fault is this misreporting of science?

Is it journalists who are responsible for ensuring they have all the facts before publishing a story, and for not over-sensationalising for the sake of a front-page headline? Or do scientists need to improve their ability to communicate with the media? In my opinion it’s a combination of the two.

In both the MMR and the GM examples, had the journalists reporting on these stories been able to read and understand the original research, they might have reported the stories differently. On the other hand, some responsibility clearly lies with the scientists, who should have properly communicated their work and findings in a way the media and the general public could understand.

This issue has recently been recognised within the scientific community. Training in how to communicate with the public is widely available to scientists at all levels, and big moves have been made towards improving the visibility of scientists and their work within society.

The RSS Science Journalism Programme targets the problem from the other end, training journalists how to assess quality of evidence and present information. Through giving workshops I have found that one of my main take-home messages to journalists is that they should be sceptical of any interviewee (even if they have Doctor or Professor before their name!) and question the science underlying any press release. We encourage the journalists to always go back to original sources for evidence, and not to be afraid to contact scientists for more information. Increased dialogue between scientists and the media can only be a good thing for accurate reporting of science!

Volunteering for the Science Journalism Programme has definitely been worth the time and effort. I have been exposed to how journalism and the media work, and seen science from the perspective of a journalist. I’m really looking forward to running more workshops in the future, and I would definitely recommend volunteering on the programme to other scientists if they get the opportunity.

Amelia is a third year PhD student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @AmeliaFrizell.

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