Tag Archives: media

Working to keep us well

Darrell Gale joined Wokingham Borough Council earlier this year as the new public health consultant. Yesterday he was quoted in the local press urging parents, as their children go back to school, to ensure they are immunised against potentially serious illnesses, mentioning MMR in particular.

It was sensible advice, and I emailed Darrell to thank him and his colleagues for their efforts (local MMR rates have been climbing steadily – see below), and also to express my satisfaction at the tone of the report.

Too often we see the scientific advice on MMR, and on vaccination generally, obscured in the media by misinformation and journalistic false balance. I am grateful that our local paper appears to report on these matters responsibly.

Darrell’s gracious reply included this gem:

As an evidence-based speciality, we in public health often get landed the sticky issues to deal with – such as immunisation and a whole raft of other health issues which our blessed media like to dissect before taking advice or evidence from the most misguided spokespeople they can. I’m pleased that our local paper has taken our advice and printed it without spin, and I hope they continue to do so. With that, we may still improve the health of those in our borough who most need it.

(Emphasis mine).

Darrell is absolutely right. It is not enough for journalists to show skepticism towards the powerful, to scrutinise what our politicians and officials are telling us, as vital as that is. They must also demonstrate the same skepticism to the opposite camp. For sometimes the powerless need help to raise their voice against the powerful; sometimes they can be dismissed as deluded deniers of evidence.

Vaccination rates amongst local children have risen massively in recent years, but there is still some way to go to achieve satisfactory levels for effective community immunity.

MMR1MMR2

(Source: Wokingham Borough Council, Health & Wellbeing Board, Immunisation Update 15/8/13. PDF)

Inside Science

BBC Radio 4 - Inside ScienceI’ve just listened to the first episode of Inside Science, Radio 4’s new science magazine programme. It’s really very good, but then the series has as presenters three of my very favourite people – Alice Roberts, Lucie Green and our recent guest at Reading SITP, Adam Rutherford.

Obviously one episode isn’t much to go on, but the format and the kind of issues covered remind me of Australia’s The Science Show, and that’s no bad thing. On that programme Robyn Williams (38 years in the job and, incidentally, uncle to Ben Goldacre) is great at covering the science but he is also hot on the politics that attach to so many science stories. And while he is a pom, I hear in his pieces a very Australian intolerance for bullshit. He and his ABC producers seem much more willing to criticise their government’s policies than does our national broadcaster.

Inside Science fills the Thursday afternoon slot left by the now cancelled Material World. As much as I liked that programme, I was an infrequent listener. It seemed to me a much cuddlier creature than The Science Show, and less interesting for that. In Adam, Alice and Lucie, Inside Science has three first rate science communicators and three passionate advocates for science. I think we can expect good things.

It looks like subscribers to the Material World podcast will automatically get the new show in their feed, at least for now. The new podcast isn’t showing up in my iTunes search yet but you can subscribe via these links here.

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science and Health Reporting

I’m a little late to this but I think it’s worth sharing. The Science Media Centre was asked by the Leveson Inquiry to come up with some Guidelines for Science and Media Reporting, and here is their submission:

The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and sub editors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate, They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs will not be able to cover every point, Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicafities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents, Wherever possible the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works,

  • State the source of the story – e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study – e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research – e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – i.e. if ’cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember patients” don’t call something a ’cure’ that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

It strikes me that these guidelines are as useful to us consumers of the news as to its writers. If a health story in your newspaper doesn’t tick all of these boxes, it might be best to view the claims with some scepticism.

(Hat-tip to the estimable David Spiegelhalter)