If there are two ideas that journalists cling to with a vice-like intensity, they are the doctrines of objectivity and transparency. A good journalist not only demonstrates transparency in their own work but demands transparency of others too. These principles are the bedrock of quality journalism.
Well... almost. It seems that when standard journalistic ethics are applied to science coverage, a paradox ensues: the journalists are writing what is defined as 'good' journalism, yet this style of reporting can lead to misinforming the public or hindering the progress of the very subject the journalist is trying to cover.
A seemingly balanced and objective science piece, presenting an argument and a counterargument could misinform the public, by leading them to believe that marginal views have more credibility than is widely accepted by the scientific community. Earlier this year, an independent review found that the BBC was guilty of being too balanced in its scientific coverage, presenting less credible scientific views as equal to those of the voices of authority. This effectively leads to confusion amongst members of the public as to what to believe.
Journalists often ask the scientific community for transparency regarding data gleaned from experiments; this could potentially lead to great things, such as exposing pharmaceutical companies who plan to sell drugs without fully ascertaining the consequences of their use, however there are some that argue that Freedom of Information requests regarding raw data from experiments might jeopardise the progress of research and lead to misinterpretations of results.
At the Index on Censorship's "Data Debate" at Imperial College last night, speakers got to argue the case for greater transparency. George Monbiot argues that transparency in scientific research would build trust between the public and the scientific community. Professor David Colquhoun also advocated greater transparency in clinical trials to eliminate public fears of profiteering and inaccuracy. Yet, how much information can journalists expect to have access to? The development of scientific research and theory doesn't happen in a vacuum. "Science flourishes in coffee rooms. Would be a shame to have to record everything said there in case of an FoI request", said one participant.
So how can science journalism combat this tendency to draw confused conclusions? Ben Goldacre, who regularly writes a column entitled 'Bad Science' for The Guardian, is pretty clear on the purpose of science journalism. As he sees it, journalists must debunk inaccurate science instead of reporting the findings of dubious studies and letting others manipulate scientific data for personal gain. Phillip Ball, also of the Guardian, adopts another approach to scientific reporting; he plans to question the sociological factors governing scientific research, why invests lore money in certain projects? Who in the scientific world wields influence and will shape the investigation of cutting edge scientific theory?
In short, being a good science journalist requires that most fundamental asset to scientific inquiry: an inquisitive mind. However, journalists should not just be questioning the results they see in front of them, but their own work too.