Another take on relationships of journalist and scientist

The post below I have written in 2011, just after I returned from the IARC 2011 classification of RF as possible carcinogen (2B). Now, dealing with hidden censorship I remembered this post and… after reading I still consider it valid, at least in my opinion… Enjoy! Share! Comment!

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Science and News Media

From years of reading in the news media about the possibility of health effects associated with the exposure to mobile phone radiation, I got an impression that the information field has been dominated by two types of activists. One type of the activists are those who interpret every observation indicating possibility of the existence of health effects, published in peer-reviewed scientific journal, as a sure prediction of the doom of the humanity, predominantly due to brain cancer. The other type of the activists are those who automatically disregard the above mentioned health-related findings as artifacts and point out to numerous no-effect-observed studies as a certain proof that there is, and will be, no problem.

Those, as myself, expressing the view that our scientific data is still insufficient to make far reaching conclusions and that the claims made by scientists in numerous positive and negative studies are not supported by the presented scientific data, we are ridiculed and “ostracized” and often linked to either group of the above mentioned activists, depending to what group of activists belongs the person presenting his/hers opinion.

Opinion of those who are not intimately involved in research on the effects of mobile phone emitted radiation, whether they are laymen or scientists, is formed predominantly by the reports in the news media. Reading these reports often made me wonder – what’s going on?

That is why I have organized tutorial session on Science and News Media at the recent meeting of the Bioelectromagnetics Society in Halifax, Canada in June 2011.

BEMS Annual Meeting in Halifax, Canada, June 2011

Plenary Tutorial Session: Science and News Media

Chairs: Janie Page (USA) and Andrew Wood (Australia)

16:30 – 17:00 (30 min) – Bruce Stutz (USA) – Media interpretations of science

17:00 – 17:30 (30 min) – Jennifer  Loukissas (USA) – Guidelines for scientists to inform the media

17:30 – 18:00 (30 min) – Dariusz Leszczynski (Finland) – EMF scientist’s interaction with the media

18:00 – 18:30 (30 min) – moderated panel discussion between the audience and the speakers

The session was a great success (it was considered as the best session of the meeting), showing that there is a need to develop better strategies for informing news media and public at large about the scientific research on the possible health effects of mobile phone radiation.

At this session I have presented a talk, of which extended abstract is seen below:

“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” and The Scientist: discussing the science with the main-stream media.

presented by Dariusz Leszczynski from STUK – Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Helsinki, Finland (dariusz.leszczynski@stuk.fi)

The title of the classical spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” has entered the English language as an idiomatic expression. The respective phrases refer to upsides, downsides and the parts which could, or should have been done better, but were not.

Since entering in 1999 the field of research on biological and health effects of mobile phone radiation I have been forced to interact with journalists on a regular basis. Based on my own experience I divide journalists who interviewed me into three categories:

  • The Good” (journalist) – is a person who has done homework and knows about the topic of the interview
  • The Bad” (journalist) – is a person who has own, strong and difficult to affect, preconceptions about the topic of the interview
  • The Ugly” (journalist) – is a person who knows nothing about the topic of the interview but has to write and fast an interesting story with an eye-catching title.

Interviews with each of them have their own specifics, and scientists should be prepared to forcefully present their own viewpoints:

  • An interview with “The Good” is scientifically challenging. This journalist has read about the topic and knows the subject. The questions are relevant and “The Good” will not be satisfied with evasive answers. “The Good” will scientifically challenge the scientist, and it is good!
  • An interview with “The Bad” will also be scientifically challenging but it is also nerve wrecking. “The Bad” knows something about the science but he also has his own opinion. The aim of “The Bad” is to get the scientist to provide answers fitting his preconceived opinion. Scientists’ knowledge will be challenged in the most frustrating way as it will be difficult, if often impossible, to convince “The Bad” that the preconceived opinion might be incorrect.
  • An interview with “The Ugly” requires a lot of patience. “The Ugly” does not know anything about the subject and his ideas might sound to the scientist outrageously ridiculous. For the reason, this interview might be scientifically the most challenging because it should include “a crash course” on the subject of the interview, and the “crash course” should be kept simple as any scientific jargon will not ring a bell in “The Ugly”.

The product of the interview, often expected to be the catchy story in the news-media, will very much depend on the journalist, and the scientist has

  • rather nothing to worry with the story written by “The Good” – this story will present the correct facts and correct opinions, even if  it is an abbreviated version due to space limitations in e.g. newspaper
  • lots to worry about with the story written by “The Bad” because the scientist’s view might be completely distorted; scientist’s opinions might be presented in the news story very differently than the opinions of which scientist is known among his scientific peers
  • even more to worry about with the story written by “The Ugly” because the scientist’s views might not only be distorted but will likely include factual errors – making the scientist  look “stupid”.

Some of the pitfalls associated with the errors in published interviews can be avoided if the journalist is open-minded and agrees to show the story, for fact check only, to the scientist. This is, however, very seldom the case as journalists consider it as a kind of censorship, even if it is not the intention of the scientist.

And then, there is the other side of the coin – not every bad interview is bad because of the journalist. Often “The Scientist” is the one who messes things up because he

  • overstates his own findings
  • over interprets his own or others’ scientific findings
  • oversimplifies or overcomplicates the scientific findings
  • jumps to unfounded conclusions, especially concerning human health
  • uses incomprehensible, for lay-person, scientific jargon.

And then there are those who “shoot from the hip” – journalists who do not perform formal interview but take quotation from scientist’s blog or earlier presentation/interview and insert in quotation marks into text of their article giving impression of “interview” and getting quote. In such case scientist learns that he said something straight from the news media and one never knows what quote in what context will be put in the article. 

The discussion that followed the three presentations in the session was very interesting and very spirited. One of the questions was the issue of “censorship” of the news media stories. I, as a scientist, was of the opinion that it is good that the story written by the journalist is checked for the correctness of facts by the scientist before it is published. However, Bruce Stutz, as journalist, was of the opposite opinion – once scientist has spoken with journalist it is the job of the journalist to report without any additional influence from the scientist. We both have presented arguments to defend our positions, and we agreed to disagree…

Few days ago I got a message from Bruce where he sent me two links to the very interesting stories published in The Guardian (UK) science blog. Both stories concerned the issue of the above mentioned “censorship”. In one story such “censorship” was defended (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/oct/11/scientists-check-stories-before-publication) whereas in the other it was considered as infringement on the free press (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/sep/29/scientists-copy-check-stories).

I think that the issue remains “unsolved”. It requires lots of restrain and responsibility from both, the scientist who should not overstate the findings and their implications and the journalist who should not go for “catchy headline” and unjustly exciting story but fairly report the findings. So, it requires that The Good (journalist) and The Good (scientist) meet to produce The Good news story. Unfortunately this is often not the case. That is why there are lots of misconceptions, among the general audience and the scientists alike, about the research area of health effects of mobile phone radiation.

And finally, I think that such comments and conclusions as these presented above can be applied to any activity, where science meets news media.

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