For my first post on this blog, I can’t think of a better topic to discuss than the presentation of science in the media. As everyone is aware, the state of science journalism in Canada has been in a bit of trouble as of late. Due to cutbacks at newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels, the dedicated science journalist is an endangered species. The result of this is we now have journalists, not specialized in science reporting, reporting on complex scientific issues, and getting things wrong. This problem is obviously not unique to Canada, and won’t improve on its own.
On Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to an exclusive lunch panel, moderated by the CBC’s legendary news anchor Don Newman, to celebrate the launch of the Science Media Centre of Canada. What I witnessed there gave me a bit of hope for science reporting in Canada. This new organization’s goal is to address the very problem I outlined above. They seek to improve the media’s capability to report science accurately. In many ways, their goals are shared by the skepticism movement.
The keynote was given by Fiona Fox, the president of the original Science Media Centre in the UK. She highlighted the need for the organization by contrasting two major well known British scientific controversies. The first one was the GM foods debate that took place about 10 years ago. The national tabloids ran scary headlines about “frankenfoods” and created a state of irrational fear in the public. Fox noted that not a single plant scientist called up the media to defend genetic engineering of crops. As a result of this, GM crops have been practically banned in the UK. The second example dealt with research using human/animal hybrid embryos. Again, the national tabloids ran scary headlines, this time using “frankenbunny” (with a picture of a person with a bunny for a head). But this time, the SMC got into action and arranged for scientists to talk to the media about their research. This latest controversy was presented to the typically shy scientists as an ‘opportunity’. It was a chance for the scientists to talk about their research to the public! The SMC gave the scientists somequick media training and then placecd them in front of a surprisingly receptive media. This turned the negative press right around. It turned out, a big reason the media was misrepresenting the science was because the activists always were available for a quick soundbite, and the scientific experts were AWOL. As a result of this new strategic response, the parliament passed legislation allowing this once ‘scary’ and ‘unnatural’ research to proceed (with restrictions), helping scientists to research all sorts of dangerous genetic diseases.
Here in Canada, we luckily haven’t lately encountered such large public scientific controversies recently. It can be hard to predict when the next one will surface. Perhaps the autism/vaccine ‘manufactroversy’ will gain momentum. If that happens, it would be nice if there was an organization out there working to connect the media with the science, and not let the ideologues control the message reaching the public.
At this point, the Canadian SMC is just starting up. They’ve chosen Ottawa as the location for their first office, but plan to have branches in other cities in the future. So far they only have one employee and are currently seeking their initial start-up investments. In their short existence they have already attained some impressive support by gaining endorsement from Jay Ingram of the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. It remains to be seen if they will be as successful as their British forebearers, but for the sake of science literacy in Canada, I hope they will.