10 best practice guidelines for reporting science & health stories

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understandinguncertainty.org was produced by the Winton programme for the public understanding of risk based in the Statistical Laboratory in the University of Cambridge. The aim was to help improve the way that uncertainty and risk are discussed in society, and show how probability and statistics can be both useful and entertaining.

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These guidelines were submitted by the Science Media Centre to the Leveson Inquiry into the press.

They were produced as a consequence of Fiona Fox's appearance before the Inquiry - her submission and transcripts are here. Fiona told Lord Leveson "We have some fantastic science journalists in this country and I believe that if you put them in a room with very eminent scientists and members of the public that it would take them a couple of hours to come up with these basic guidelines for science coverage." Lord Leveson took her at her word, and asked for the guidelines, and here they are.

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.

I think they are rather good (but I would say that, wouldn't I, as I was consulted on the first draft). It will be interesting to see whether they are eventually endorsed by Leveson, or whether Editors voluntarily sign up to them.

Incidentally, Fiona clearly spoke rapidly. There were numerous requests to her to slow down and Lord Leveson himself observed "I'm just concerned that smoke seems to be emanating from the shorthand writer."