Three-D Issue 20: Reconnecting Science and Journalism Post-Leveson

Stuart Allan, Bournemouth University

Science journalism is often fraught with tensions, particularly where issues concerning possible risks, threats or hazards come to the fore. ‘Cancer danger of that night-time trip to the toilet’ one Daily Mail headline declared by way of example, the ensuing news story alerting readers to what seemed a particularly insidious health peril lurking in their own homes.

Daily Mail - cancer danger‘Simply turning on a light at night for a few seconds to go to the toilet can cause changes that might lead to cancer, scientists claim,’ the story began. ‘Researchers in the UK and Israel found that when a light is turned on at night, it triggers an “over-expression” of cells linked to the formation of cancer’ (The Daily Mail, 12 April, 2010).

The story continued, eventually outlining the evidential basis for this worrying assertion, namely genetic tests carried out on mice, and offering advice – courtesy of a quotation ostensibly from one of the scientists – ‘to avoid reaching for the light switch’ in the dark. Daily Mail readers had been warned.

Another day, another startling story failing to connect science with journalism in any meaningful sense of either term. And there it may have ended.

Enter Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, who was asked about this story when appearing before the Leveson Inquiry on 6 February, 2012.

Queried in the first instance was the absence of a named person responsible for the story (its byline having been simply attributed to ‘Daily Mail Reporter’). Dacre responded by insisting that this was ‘a practice common to all newspapers,’ particularly where a story originates from a news agency. He acknowledged his newspaper’s reliance on such agencies, but refused to accept that they sometimes put a sensationalist spin on scientific articles published in research journals.

His resolve began to waver, however, when told by counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC that the journal article in question actually concluded that ‘there was some sort of association between cell division and changes in the cells, but [the researchers] find no causal relationship between turning on lights for a short period of time and cancer’ (Leveson transcript, p. 96). The article, which appeared in Cancer Genetics and Cytogenetics, made no mention of any sort of risk associated with trips to the toilet or anything remotely similar.

Further scrutiny of the details led Dacre to mount an impromptu defence criticising the agency that supplied the Daily Mail with the story for having ‘included the line about going to the loo. They got this man talking to one of the researchers and they put that over as a quote. Unfortunately, in the copy – it was taken out of a quote and put in the copy’ (p. 97), he explained.

Evidently rather annoyed, Dacre declared that he would ‘categorically dispute’ any suggestion that ‘we adopt an irresponsible attitude to medical or science stories.’ To contend that agency copy should be double-checked prior to publication was to ‘misunderstand how journalism works,’ he argued. ‘The Daily Mail has hundreds of stories in it. Thousands of stories in a week. It’s 120 pages. If they come from an agency, a reputable agency, we put them in the paper’ (p. 98).

In refusing to concede that this was an example of what Jay termed ‘imprecise journalism,’ Dacre pointed to a further challenge in covering ‘an incredibly complicated subject like this,’ namely the necessity of employing descriptive language in news reports ‘which is accessible to people – ordinary people who don’t have a scientific or medical background’ (p. 100).

All in all, then, a rather revealing dispute over an alarmist story inventing a causative relationship between a preliminary study of cell division in mice and cancer risks for people. To the extent facts were misrepresented, it was a simple matter of oversight in a ‘small little story,’ its blustering editor maintained; culpability was not to be pinned on the daily’s routine over-dependence on news agency copy, but rather – in a blame the victims twist of logic – on the difficulties of relaying scientific findings to lay readers (perceived to be lacking sufficient scientific or medical knowledge to appreciate attendant complexities).

Sensationalist stories can have serious implications, of course, a point underscored by one of the journal article’s authors, Professor Charalambos Kyriacou, in a press release. ‘Imagine someone had tried to go and pee in the middle of the night and kept the lights off, as he had read the Mail story earlier in the day. He pees on the floor by mistake, slips on the tiles, and breaks his neck on the cistern. Consequently, Mr Dacre should ensure that his journalists write more responsibly’ (Press Office, University of Leicester, 1 March 2012).

No such responsibility was accepted by Dacre. Few observers were surprised, I suspect, by his intransigence over this instance of ‘churnalism’ (to borrow Nick Davies’s term) gone badly awry. As Ananyo Bhattacharya rightly pointed out in The Guardian, ‘the implication that a desk reporter sensationalised wire copy that was already stretching the findings of a paper to breaking point is more than a little troubling. It is the very opposite of what a journalist should be doing when reporting science: asking questions and deflating exaggeration’ (The Guardian, 6 March, 2012).

Regrettably, the Daily Mail’s excesses regarding cancer scare stories are so commonplace – several blogs are devoted to debunking them on a regular basis – that the harm they cause may seem trivial. Still, Dacre’s evidence to Leveson provides a compelling insight into the recurrent disconnect between science and journalism, and why as a result reading his newspaper may be bad for your health.

Posted by Einar Thorsen