[SALVADOR/LONDON] Science media centres, institutions that aim to improve the coverage of science in the media, seem to be proliferating.
New ones are being planned or created in Denmark, Germany, the European Union and the United States, following the ones that are already operating in Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom.
And a possible creation of such a centre in the developing world was discussed at last week’s PCST2014 (13th International Public Communication of Science and Technology Conference) in Salvador, Brazil (5-8 May).
But now a body of academic research is emerging that challenges the self-professed independence and objectivity of the information provided by the Science Media Centre (SMC) in London, United Kingdom, which is said to have inspired the set-up of others.
Its briefings on various issues, including those of relevance to development, such as genetic modification (GM) or renewable energy, are reported on by British mass media, such as the BBC and The Guardian, which have a global audience and influence.
Researchers are questioning two of the SMC’s claims: to provide neutral scientific views to promote better representation of science in the media, and to be independent of its many funders, who are largely the corporate world and the government.
Instead, they said at PCST2014, corporate lobbyists feature high on the agenda, which is dominated by the topics close to corporate rather than public interest.
And the journalists who uncritically report on SMC briefings and quotes sent by the centre are being taken for a ride by a lobby organisation instead of a neutral science information provider, they said.
“I would close down the Science Media Centre,” said Connie St Louis, former president of the Association of British Science Writers and a senior lecturer at City University, London. She conducted a small study on the centre’s impact on UK science reporting in the 12 national newspapers in 2011 and 2012.
The SMC’s main activities include sending out ‘expert reactions’ — quotes on issues in the news — and holding media briefings, essentially small press conferences with a few experts.
She found that more than half the SMC’s expert reactions were covered in the press and, in 23 per cent of the stories that included these, the only quotes were those that came from the centre.
“Whatever the SMC delivered to them is what they used,” St Louis said of those 23 per cent of stories. “The SMC never claims to deliver a balanced [argument], so it’s really interesting that many of them weren’t using somebody independent of what the SMC offered.”
Within the stories that did quote other sources, 32 per cent of those independent views opposed those offered by the SMC expert reactions, suggesting that the centre’s quotes fail to reflect the full range of opinions on a topic.
The SMC’s media briefings were reported even less critically: 60 per cent of articles based on them contained no non-SMC mediated source.
For a public relations (PR) organisation’s messaging service, that’s quite a success, said St Louis.