No crisis in science writing, but it could be better

A new report calls for better training for journalists who write about science, especially in the understanding of statistics.

The Science and Media Expert Group, set up by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and chaired by Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre, does not find that science writing is in crisis, as some have claimed.

In general, it is in no worse health than the media model of which it is part, which may not be saying very much. While more plentiful than at some times in the past, science writing in the British media suffers from homogeneity and the dominance of the big journals.
The group believes that more needs to be done to train journalists to write about science. There is relatively little such training available, apart from the new post-graduate course at City University. The report suggests various ways in which this gap might be filled, including the creation of a post of National Coordinator of Science Journalism Training. Subject to funding being found, this post will be hosted by the Royal Statistical Society.
Among a large number of other recommendations, one stands out: the suggestion that analysis of papers appearing in journals should be available before the papers are published to guide journalists in their interpretation. There is already a service, provided by Bazian on the NHS Choices website, called Behind the Headlines, which analyses papers and their media coverage after the event.
But it is much harder to provide such analysis in advance. It would require embargoed access to papers and press releases in sufficient time to provide the analysis, also embargoed, to journalists. The suggestion is that Bazian would provide the analysis which would then be distributed by the SMC, subject again to funding being available.
This might go some way towards breaking the power of the journals to dictate how their papers are interpreted by the media. In particular, few journalists have enough knowledge to judge if the statistical methods used are appropriate and that they justify the conclusions drawn.
You might argue that it would be better if they acquired that knowledge for themselves rather than simply being spoon-fed from a different spoon. But in time such a service (in which Straight Statistics could play a part) would lead to better-informed coverage.
The report assumes that journalists will continue to want to cover science and medicine. But that is not certain. Two US universities, the City University of New York and the University of Minnesota, have closed their training courses for health and medical reporting for lack of interest. There weren’t sufficient students to keep them going. That isn’t true in the UK, where recruitment for the City University course was very successful.