Facing up to media responsibility
The annual festival of the British Association for the Advancement of Science is an event dedicated to improving communication between scientists and the rest of the world. So it seems rather unfortunate that, for the second year running, the column inches were as much about when this interaction goes wrong as about when it goes right. Last year, the emphasis given by the BA and the media alike to a symposium about the paranormal drew sharp rebukes from some attending scientists. This year, Professor Peter Hammond (Institute of Child Health, University College London) refused a live interview about his work for BBC News 24, apparently telling them that he was extremely angry – his work had been misreported, he had been misquoted, and he wanted nothing more to do with
the media (see tinyurl.com/yvtl48).
The row was over reporting of Professor Hammond’s new computer software (see tinyurl.com/2yhfn4), which compares a child’s face with extensive collections of 3D face images of children and adults to detect features characteristic of genetic conditions such as fragile-X and Smith-Magenis syndromes, with ‘a 90% success rate’.
Several newspapers, including The Guardian, The Independent and Yorkshire Post, ran with the story. Perhaps it was particularly the Yorkshire organ which Hammond considered out of tune – its headline, ‘Hi-tech facial scans used to detect autism in children’, was certainly overstating it (the journalist’s defence was that it was written by a sub – a common issue). In fact the UCL release only said that the system had ‘identified unusual facial asymmetry in children with autism spectrum disorder reflecting known brain asymmetry’. The piece claimed that Hammond had said the system would ‘revolutionise diagnosis’, whereas in fact The Independent reported him as saying ‘This is not diagnosis. The diagnosis is done by a clinician and a molecular geneticist doing the genetic testing’. Finally, the Yorkshire Post had quoted
him as saying ‘you can spot a kid with Down’s syndrome a mile away’ – Hammond claimed he simply hadn’t
said this. The journalist told the BBC:
‘It may not sound terribly PC, but that’s what he said.’
Whatever the ins and outs of this particular incident, it seems a shame that Hammond didn’t accept the offer of a live interview to put the record straight. Scientists are perhaps too quick to damn the media, when at least some of the responsibility for getting the story across lies with them. Given that ‘a colleague had warned him this would happen’, shouldn’t Hammond have taken extra care explaining the detail?
Reporting on the issue, the BBC’s Nick Higham presented the standard picture of ‘unworldly’ scientists, insisting on ‘caveats and qualifications at every turn’, and reporters ‘desperately trying to simplify complex concepts and make them accessible to a general audience’. Personally, I think this is outdated, and most scientists these days are as worldly
as journalists are scientifically savvy. Maybe this makes the odd exception to the rule more newsworthy.
Asked whether problems of this sort were common, the British Association’s chief executive Sir Roland Jackson said this case was unusual and unfortunate.
‘It illustrates the nature of our challenge
in trying to encourage scientists to interact more openly. Whenever you talk with someone else, there’s a danger of being misrepresented. But from my point of view, for scientists to withdraw into their shells and to stop communicating would be completely unproductive.’
Whilst the Society’s media operation is the envy of most learned bodies (and many a commercial organisation too!), it has to constantly reinvent itself to keep up with the evolving face of newspapers, radio and TV, not to mention the ever-changing news agenda.
To this end the team is currently developing plans to expand its tried and tested database, which offers psychological expertise to journalists seeking either insight or comment for their stories. The plan is to identify and add names of members who can comment on behalf of the Society, explaining its stance and policies on matters in the news. These members will have been those directly involved in leading the development of the Society’s polices and position statements and will have a good understanding not only of the Society’s position on the matter in question, but also how the Society came to its position. By including these people on the database we hope to gain some of the profile that other bodies who provide spokespeople have with the media.
We’re also looking to be more proactive with the way we promote the database of members willing to assist the media. In the past we have sent mailings out to journalists reminding them that they can call us on a wide range of topics and that we can put them in touch with members with relevant and informed views who are willing to assist. We’re now exploring a system in which we will e-mail journalists when a big news story breaks to let them know what psychology might have to contribute to their coverage and, of course that we have a pool of experts ready and waiting to help.
Both of these developments, however, rely on there being a sufficient pool of members willing to engage with the media to spread understanding of psychology. To increase this we’re investing in our training courses to introduce media work to as many people as possible. As well as the courses you see advertised each month in The Psychologist, we have a programme of courses run for individual Divisions, Branches, Sections or even university departments.
Anyone interested in us running a bespoke course should contact the PR Team at [email protected].
Public Relations Manager
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber