Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Catalyst for Better Science Journalism

By Rob Morrison

In the wake of the controversial Catalyst reports on cholesterol and statins, Rob Morrison provides a checklist for good science journalism.

Journalists are urged to tackle more science in their stories, but every complex scientific issue, from climate change and the Murray River to dietary advice and bogus health treatments, seems to produce a stalemate of conflicting information, politicisation and a confused public.

In October 2013, the ABC science series Catalyst aired two reports on the effectiveness of statins, which are widely used medications prescribed by doctors to lower cholesterol levels. The first report took a critical look at the science behind claims that saturated fat causes heart disease by raising cholesterol, and drew an immediate reaction. Comments were appended to the online transcript, blogs appeared along with media articles featuring experts who supported or decried the program. Some warned that it would cause deaths.

The second program a week later asked: “Do statins really reduce your risk of heart disease?” It carried the disclaimer: “The views expressed in this episode of Catalyst are not intended as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor regarding your medications.”

The many comments on both programs ranged from “fabulous” to “absurd”. Some were hugely supportive and others deeply critical, neither adding much to the debate. Some relied on personal anecdotes to endorse or refute the programs, while some cited extensive scientific reports or expert comment to support their remarks. A number claimed to represent a commonsense view and commented accordingly. There were allegations of both corruption by Big Pharma and political interference, as well as accusations of medical incompetence and fraud, while conspiracy theories and a “media beat-up” were cited by both critics and supporters of the programs.

There were more, but most responses could be placed within at least one of these categories. What does one make of this?

Journalists must try to cover complex scientific matters in media outlets that seldom provide as much space or time as these two programs were allotted. They are told to balance their coverage of controversies, but this has led to absurd interviews where genuine experts, with mountains of credibly published work to cite, are given equal time with lone and sometimes unhinged critics as if each carried equal authority. Some journalists, knowing that conflict is a successful framework for a story, deliberately choose antagonistic opponents and polarise opinions.

How can a journalist hope to cover complex scientific matters successfully? And if they don’t, why do we spend so much effort in encouraging them to report on science?

I offer a few pointers that might help. I don’t pretend that they are exhaustive, and others may quarrel with them, but they would have helped me when I began science reporting.

  1. A balanced view requires more than simply airing opposing views. Conflict is a reliable media angle but confuses rather than clarifies. Choose two equally matched real experts.
  2. Check the background of your experts. Others will, and it won’t help your credibility if it reveals impropriety, conflicts of interest or advocacy for pseudoscience and bogus health treatments. Pitting a pseudoscientist against a real scientist does not balance a science story.
  3. Experts should have current or recent research experience in the relevant field and have published it in credible journals. This is more or less the approach advocated by the Australian Science Media Centre.
  4. A balanced coverage requires arguments that can be defended on the basis of credible published evidence rather than simply opinion.
  5. A balanced coverage should reflect whatever uncertainties exist and how long (sometimes decades) it may be before academic research findings are likely to be useful in a clinical setting. Many “cutting-edge” research “breakthroughs” come to nothing.
  6. Mistrust anyone who says that “the science is settled”. Science is never settled, and further research will always add more to understanding, sometimes changing current perceptions and, one hopes, opinions. This does not represent failure in science but advancement.
  7. Differing results and interpretations beg the question of what to believe and report. In controversial matters, especially medical research, learn how to consult Cochrane Reviews, which involve meta-analysis to bring together the summarised results of many credible findings. They can provide the best summary of what research has revealed – sometimes nothing.
  8. However good you are, whatever you say or write (especially in complex matters) accept that people will often take away from a report not what it actually says but whatever message confirms their existing prejudices and beliefs.

    1. Dr Rob Morrison has been a science writer and broadcaster for more than 40 years, 18 of them as a science journalist. He has won two Eureka Prizes and the Michael Daley Award for science journalism, and is a foundation board member of the Australian Science Media Centre.