Bad headlines and science journalism

Director of the UK Science Media Centre, Fiona Fox, discusses the interplay between universities, journalists and editors in the wake of her presentation to the Leveson inquiry. From her blog on science and the media.

An excerpt (read in full here):

Dodgy science headlines: PR can share the blame

Two weeks ago I was called to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. It was a nerve-wracking ordeal but also an incredible opportunity to say what needs fixing in our newsrooms to improve the quality of science coverage. Despite telling me to slow down no fewer than four times, Lord Justice Leveson summed up my breathless evidence by suggesting that it appeared to him that there is not too much to fix. This conclusion is bound to exasperate some observers, but I was relieved that he got my point that we owe a massive debt to the skilful science journalists who convey complex and important science to mass audiences on a daily basis.
Leveson also grasped that my real beef is with the non-specialists in newsrooms who get to make the decisions about what constitutes a good story, where it appears in the paper and under what headline. A lot can go wrong between the accurate copy of a science reporter and these three decisions. Yet it is the overinflated headlines and the front page billing that raise unnecessary fears and hopes, and damage the public interest easily as much as the hacking of celebrity voicemail.
Most of the reactions to my appearance at Leveson were positive but one science reporter pointed out that when Leveson has finished scrutinizing the press, he could do worse than looking at the press officers who collude with the worst instincts of news editors in order to get their institutions’ name in lights.
People know that I am a huge champion of science press officers and it’s the combination of their work and that of great science reporters that creates all that is good about science in the media. But as with our newsrooms there is still stuff to fix. I am not sure if anyone has ever done any research on this but I have a horrible feeling that if we took the worst newspaper headlines and traced back their origins – we may find the press release was to blame in far more cases than any of us would care to admit. We’ve now got to the stage where not only do the best science journalists have to fight the perverse news values of their news editors but also to try to read between the lines of overhyped press releases to get to the truth of what a scientific study is really claiming. Quite right too you might say – it’s their job to see through PR hype – maybe – but no press officer should be proud of the fact that their press release had to be toned down by reporters.