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Transmitting Science
Institute of Ideas Genes and Society Festival, BAC, London, 26-27 April 2003


Dave Clements

In two debates on the treatment of science in the media speakers explored what happens when these worlds collide.

Frank Burnet, director of the Cheltenham Science Festival, said newspapers influence the perception of science. For Mark Henderson, science correspondent at The Times, they both lead and reflect public opinion. Competition between newspapers and the demands of the newsdesk drive much of the coverage. '[T]he act of reporting gives [a story] legitimacy that it may not deserve'. He sought to distance himself and his colleagues from the tabloids; apparently there is a 'basement slot' on the front cover of The Times reserved for the quirky stuff.

Johnjoe McFadden, Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Surrey, noted that 'scare stories sell better'. Vivienne Parry, a former presenter of BBC's Tomorrow's World, said the papers tends to pick up on readers' views and 'amplify' them. The difference with television, particularly the BBC, is that it has a remit to educate the public.

This jarred, rather, with the account given by Emma Read, Commissioning Editor of Discovery Networks Europe. According to her, the role of the broadcaster is threefold, to engage, involve and to provoke. Her job is to communicate and make science accessible. Read pointed out that the word 'science' puts some people off, as it appears too highbrow. According to Discovery's focus groups, science programmes are regarded as a 'bit too clever', but the knowledgeable viewer, on the other hand, felt patronised.

Geoff Watts, presenter of Radio 4's Leading Edge and member of the Human Genetics Commission, questioned the contemporary obsession with visuals (a 'tyranny of pictures'), suggesting that we are seduced by imagery to the detriment of substance and narrative. There is a conflict between wanting to capture the audience and attempting to get ideas across.

But is this contradiction more assumed than apparent, I wonder? The formulaic approach to science on television, from the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs to Walking with Cavemen points to a rather conservative outlook, that dares not go beyond the tested and familiar.

For Read, the '"feed me" mentality of the audience' and their insatiable appetite for entertainment was responsible. She complained that nobody could sit down for a minute and listen to ideas. Read was concerned that the introduction of new science was 'really challenging for viewers' who much preferred 'comfort telly'. She didn't however want to alienate them with content that is irrelevant to their lives, and would rather draw the audience in with fun and experiments.

Watts was rightly critical of Read's lack of confidence in both the material and the audience. Read complained that the BBC, as well as the commercial channels, has been chasing ratings and abandoning serious programming. Although she was right to note how such programmes are being pushed to the non-terrestrial periphery, she was also trying to excuse her own patronising view of the audience. Toby Murcott also liked the idea of 'slipping in information'. He wanted to 'make people feel better about themselves'. His Therapeutic TV, as a vehicle for imposing science on the unwilling and unwitting, seemed to me as demeaning as Read's projection of her own assumptions onto the masses.

Murcott, rather provocatively, said 'TV is lousy at [science] education'. But it is a very good medium for intriguing the audience. He argued that there is virtually no science on TV. It tends not to deal in the 'mechanics' but presents the outcomes or the ideas that result, overlooking the process. Science creates a provisional body of knowledge, not answers or truth. For Watts, the scientific and media communities have very different worldviews. Scientists and the media are operating on different plains, engaging in different forms of intellectual inquiry. Science is an 'extraordinary and exceptional branch of human affairs'.

The debate about the role of the press pivoted not on how it seeks to educate, but on its negative coverage and how this relates to public perceptions of science. Henderson argued that press officers know what makes good copy; '"X is safe" isn't an interesting story'. Parry described how scientists look to the media to inform the public. But, there is a susceptibility to lobbyists, and scientists are no match for the likes of Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. Burnet pointed out that the public holds a prejudiced view of scientists as 'boffins', hidden away in their labs in their white coats, and are not at all like the rest of us.

Parry explained that the British media felt 'hoodwinked' by the BSE debacle. The mishandling of the situation 'poisoned' relations with officialdom, said Henderson. He did however suggest that refusing to report non-peer reviewed research by maverick scientists (as in the case of MMR in Britain) would be tantamount to censorship. There is, nevertheless, he continued, a distinction to be made between reportage and campaigning - something the tabloids seem to forget. This was an interesting point, but I wasn't convinced there is necessarily a conflict between freedom of expression and engaging in a critical response to bad science. Also, it ignored the fact that the MMR scare was waiting to happen. It had more to do with a growing mistrust of the scientific and political elites, than the pros and cons of the research or the media coverage.

Burnet argued that the response to GM is not about risk at all, but rather our view of ourselves and the scary implications of cloning. (Harry Griffin made a similar point, see 'Lessons from Dolly'.) However, I don't think the two interpretations are mutually exclusive. As Henderson said, it isn't a calculation of risk that drives scares. The news is concerned with 'what's new', he said. Malaria, unlike GM or SARS, 'doesn't meet the novelty test'. Each new panic lends itself, I think, to this fearful predisposition. Parry argued that once a story becomes 'big news' it has a momentum of its own. The refusal of the Prime Minister to declare his intentions regarding the vaccination of his son, Leo, fuelled much of the controversy and undermined confidence in MMR.

This intervention was key; it revealing the paralysing anxiety in the upper echelons of the state itself. Parry continued that awareness of the facts wouldn't necessarily sway public opinion. If genetically modified food is to get a good press, she suggested, there has to be evidence of a clear benefit, perhaps a 'Viagra tomato'. She was half right. A sense of impotency does underlie much of the anxiety about advances in genetics, and cutting-edge science more broadly. Risk aversion, whether it is on the part of populist TV producers and executives, or in the sensationalist press coverage of the relentless panic around science and health, permeated both debates.

Though the role of scientists, journalists and broadcasters is critical, there is a danger that the politicians are being let off the hook. By trying to locate an alleged disinterest in science, or more substantive mistrust, in the media or society itself, we are overlooking its probable source. Almost without exception, be it over GM, SARS or BSE, the official reaction has been decisive. Delaying tactics, endless consultative exercises, and the elevation of lay opinion in opposition to scientific judgements, are eroding the already fraying links between science and society. A responsible elite should defend advances and look to science in the face of potential threats, rather than opportunistically seeking to legitimise itself through a cynical attempt to connect with the public's irrational impulses, which it helped generate. The press and broadcasters, as mediators and informers, are more or less critical receptacles for the official line on science, and caught up in the resulting reaction and confusion.

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