Journalism by numbers

17 01 2012

by Jem Muharrem, writing on the second day of his Fast Track Diploma in Journalism course at Brighton Journalist Works.

Trainee Journalists were given a crash course today on good and bad practise in science reporting at the Brighton Journalist Works.

Dr Sam Mugford of the Norwich-based John Innes Centre and Prof David Spiegelhalter of Cambridge University teamed up in a two-pronged attack on the irresponsibility shown by some journalists in collecting and reporting scientific data and the mutability of statistics.

Dr Mugford addressed issues like “Why scientists don’t give straight answers”, highlighting the discrepancy between careful, considered thought processes of the scientific community with the whip-crack speeds expected of journalists. He said that this trend leads to misunderstanding and manipulation of data in the search for good copy.

Citing the MMR/Autism case as an example of lack of communication and use of limited sources, he called for balance in science reporting and forethought in comparing researched and ratified scientific research with emotive human stories.

Dr Spiegelhalter followed this by taking the audience on a fascinating journey through scientific misrepresentation in the press.  Students were warned to be aware of organisations fudging numbers to push their own agendas and to pick out PR from good journalism.  We were encouraged to constantly question the data given to us; to be inquisitive and hungry for accuracy and to take personal responsibility for fact.

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