The Leveson inquiry ended its evidence-taking on Tuesday. It has taken eight months, has heard from 650 witnesses, and eight arrests, of journalists and others accused of phone-hacking, have occurred while it was running. It will now consider all that evidence and Lord Leveson will report, he says, ‘as soon as I reasonably can.’ His remit goes far beyond sleazy journalists hacking mobile phones. His report will, we hope, tell us how media reporting in the UK can be made better, in all kinds of ways.
One way that journalism in the UK could be made better is in the reporting of health-related stories. The public are keenly interested in such stories, so they make news. But too often they are reported either as scare-stories – as in the classic ‘eating bacon sandwiches gives you cancer’- or as miracle cures stories – of the equally-classic ‘red wine stops you getting cancer’ variety. Both varieties of stories are based on – usually – sound scientific research papers, but the way they are reported frequently distorts the findings of those papers beyond all recognition, and in such ways that the public cannot easily find out what the real health concerns might be.
Lord Leveson was aware of this; and after the Science Media Centre submitted written evidence to his enquiry he asked it to submit guidelines for how newspapers and broadcasters should properly report science and health stories in the media. These guidelines are a formal submission to the enquiry, and appear on its website; they might or might not form part of his final recommendations.
It is important to point out that the original draft of these guidelines were drawn up by scientists; but before they were submitted they were revised in close consultation with a group of science reporters from a representative section of the national press. This makes them look rather different to the original draft drawn up by the Science and Media centre – but it gives them the considerable advantage of being much more likely to be adopted voluntarily in newsrooms as a result, which is very important. Reporting is a partnership: if everything was reported exactly as scientists would like it the end result would probably be far too boring and incomprehensible for anyone else to read. Anyone who has slogged through the appallingly dull, bad and cloth-eared English, and the appallingly poor ability to communicate, that is the average submission of a scientist to a peer-reviewed journal will understand this.
So here, below, are the guidelines. If you are writing a story, try to stick to them as much as is possible. More important, if you are reading a story about health, read it with these points in mind – and thus get some kind of judgement about how much faith you should give to the story and to what it is telling you.