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What did Fox know?

This appears to have been the view of at least some attendees at the annual conference of the World Conference of Science Journalists, held this year in Doha. Fiona Fox reports a conference session set up to discuss the role of the science media centres, with Connie St Louis (chairman of the Association of British Science Writers) invited to assume the role of critic-in-chief. 

Connie took on her role as critic enthusiastically and told the audience that the SMCs are actively encouraging the trends towards lazy 'copy and paste' journalism, are becoming too powerful and are vulnerable to being hijacked by maverick scientists, campaigners and funders alike. Connie told us that she teaches her students to do real journalism - to 'dig out' original stories, ask the tough questions to mainstream scientists and to keep a distance between themselves and the scientists they report.

This seems exactly right to me but in many ways St Louis' criticisms don't go far enough. The blogosphere has been diligently investigating climate science and asking those "tough questions" of climatologists and yet has been completely ignored by the Science Media Centre.

At times the centre has gone further, adopting the role of spin doctor on behalf of mainstream science. Its reaction to the Oxburgh report is a case in point, with the centre seeking reactions from Martin Rees and Brian Hoskins, both of whom had helped to arrange inquiry (or whitewash if you prefer). No mention was made of their involvement, however. This then raises the uncomfortable question of whether the SMC is so close to the scientific establishment that it is actively involved in covering up the misdeeds of scientists or whether it is was just blind to the possibilities. Did Fox know of the involvement of Rees and Hoskins in setting up the inquiry or was she kept in the dark?

I will write and ask.

(Incidentally, is it just me that sees scientifically literate people meeting in Doha for navel gazing purposes as strong confirmation of the suggestion that well educated folk are unconvinced by the idea of catastrophic manmade global warming?)


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Reader Comments (19)

OMG, you need a strong stomach to read this Fox type "stuff" in the morning.

Pass the sick bag, Alice.

Jul 11, 2011 at 9:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrownedoff

Could Connie point us to any of her former students?

I thik anyone arranging/attending a meeting in Doha is looking to enjoy a break, funded by taxpayers

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charley

Your last paragraph reminded me of something. Several years ago I was in discussion with a fellow reporter about the apparent inability of people in general to complain about things (in this case, their local council and the level of tax being levied) without being prepared to do anything about it.
His comment was quote revealing; "The human brain is a wonderful thing composed of many parts not all of which are in communication with each other. For example the bit that controls the hand when it puts an X on a ballot paper is not the same bit that controls the hand when it is signing the cheque for the Council Tax."
Yes, it is perfectly possible to believe in the global warming hypothesis and see no connection at all between that and the annual wingding in Doha or the Climate Convention in Sunny Wherever. It is also possible to know exactly what the effect of that next drink will be when you wake up tomorrow morning and yet to drink it anyway!
I'm afraid it's called 'human nature'.
As far as the rest of your posting is concerned, Your Grace, I'm afraid that what the SMC might be saying and what St Louis is advising are genuine and sincere ideas and ideals.
But, of course, that is what we are doing, isn't it? Being properly critical of those who deny the global warming hypothesis which is such a major threat to mankind that [insert appropriate Pavlovian reaction here]. And why shouldn't we hold a conference in Doha? What do you mean, "carbon footprint"? Come on! It's only one weekend a year!

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

Absolutely. People are not stupid, and smell a rat when they see someone bellowing out of the open window of their Range Rover 4.2 HSE, "You all need to drive smaller cars! You're killing the planet!"

These junkets are no different.

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-record

"SMCs are actively encouraging the trends towards lazy 'copy and paste' journalism"
They are talking about Louise?

By the way, off subject guys but a huge explosion here in Cyprus took out the islands main generating plant at 06.00 this a.m. Large areas of the island blacked out. Drove past the windmills 30 minutes ago and guess what they are doing?

The good old sparkys have got us back on at the moment. Imagine 34 degrees and no cold beer for lunch!

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterPete H

Fiona Fox on BBC Newswatch (23/04/2010)

“to have a sceptic in every interview is misleading the public about ‘climate science’” – Fiona Fox

Fiona Fox: Chaired a report, for Lord Drayson, the science minister, looking into the quality of science reporting

The BBC:

“Fight the good fight for accuracy, in fact
On Climate change there has been a real change..
People like Richard Black and Roger Harrabin, fighting internally [BBC] to say we DON’T have to have a sceptic every time we have a climate story.” - Fiona Fox - Newswatch.

The Science and Media Centre has of course Bob Ward on board...

And for a touch of irony - EXXON funding ;) (and BP, Shell, etc)

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Would Fiona Fox be considered as a science journalist?

Perhaps Paul McMullan, ex News Of The World, could be enlisted by Connie St Louis to teach her MA students the finer points of investigative journalism.

Since the recent relevations about editorialism and journalism at News International and the unhealthy relations and illegal activities involving London news journalists, editors, news executives, the Met and Westminster politicians perhaps Andrew Marr of the BBC would like to retract his controversial comments about bloggers, namely;

"Most citizen journalism strikes me as nothing to do with journalism at all. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people. OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism."

Compared to the activities of so called professional journalists the behaviour of bloggers or citizen journalists has been saintly.

My advice to student journalists, be it in science or not, is to ignore your tutors, your betters, your elders as they clearly know nothing about ethics, responsibility and professionalism.

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac


To answer your question;

Class of 2009/10: where are they now?

•BBC Lab UK (researcher)
•BBC Radio (trainee)
•CERN (editor, ALICE Matters, ALICE Experiment)
•ClimateWire, USA
•Cranfield Institute of Technology (research fellow)
•Euro RSCG Life Medicom (junior scientific writer)
•The Independent (production editor, business)
•ITV (web content manager)
•National Geographic Green
•Nature (internship)
•World Health Organisation

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate woth minimal qualifications and only half a mind

The Bishop: 'The blogosphere has been diligently investigating climate science and asking those "tough questions" of climatologists and yet has been completely ignored by the Science Media Centre'

Yes I am not surprised. I fear the intelligence v total quotient is low in much of the blogosphere and you can spend an awful lot of time reading for very little purposeful return. Not to say that you don't get a lot of new unexpected thoughts which is good but if you know what you want there would generally be better places to go and look for it. Like the established institutions, for instance. What? Them mislead? Come off it, that's my job!

Jul 11, 2011 at 11:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

Bish: In answer to your headline - What did Fiona Fox know?
She appears to be convinced that her personal prejudices and assumptions are so correct, intelligent and well thought through that no further information could possibly add to her already impressive knowledge on any topic.
She is the type of journalist who gives the trade a bad name, IMHO.

Jul 11, 2011 at 12:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

On the GWPF website David Whitehouse has a go at the SMC saying that journalists should not outsource their experts and view to an outside body ie the SMC. I have heard him talk about the subject and he goes further than Connie St Louis.

Jul 11, 2011 at 3:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterLissa

A blog by Connie St Louis

The Dark Side of Science Journalism?

The Dark Side of Science Journalism?

At the recent Science 2010 Online conference in North Carolina, I was co-presenting a paper and posing the somewhat contentious question “How does a journalist know which scientists to trust?” It was an attempt to outline some of the more difficult processes that the science journalist has to navigate with regard to peer-reviewed papers. During the questions afterwards the discussion moved to the question of science journalism versus science PR and communications. It became clear from the debate that ensued that science journalism has become confused with science PR and communications. They were described as having gone over to the “dark side” and with the increasing power and influence that they seem to wield in science it seems pertinent to take a moment and consider, what is science journalism? As director of the MA in science journalism at City University London I am often asked to just why do we need a MA in science journalism.

Will it teach graduate students about science? Or how to promote science? Or is it to explain complex scientific ideas and new findings? Or even to provide some form of scientific entertainment the so called “and finally” stories. My response is usually none of the above. Science journalism is simply what it says on the tin, journalism about science. As a result, much of the coverage that is called science journalism is science PR and communications masquerading as journalism. This is a dangerous moment for science journalism to be confused about its purpose.

The announcement of the charges being brought under the Theft Act of three MPs and one Lord over their expenses should be a cautionary. Whilst journalism has applauded itself on the “scoop” of the MPs scandal and celebrated the convergence of traditional and new media. The story was broken by investigative reporters who initially became suspicious after an extensive freedom of information campaign. The story was not exposed by the political ‘lobby’ journalists as it should have been, because they allowed their cosy relationships with the MPs to cloud their judgement and fail to expose the biggest political story in most recent years.

The recent ‘Climate Gate’ leaked emails story and the recent errors by the UN Climate Change Panel are in part examples of the failure of science journalism to thoroughly investigate these stories. Is it too busy trying to promote the science of climate change rather that scrutinise and rigorously question it? Journalistic robustness might leave very little room for the growing climate sceptics lobby. Science journalism needs a clear definition and vision of what it is about.“>

and another

The programme excerpt shows the start of a television programme which was the BBC’s response to ‘ClimateGate’. It was presented by Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel winning president of the Royal Society. The programme posed the question: Why in a world that is so dependent on science, do some people not trust scientists? He has a point. Ten years ago, in the US, 70 percent of the population believed in climate change; now only 50 percent. Clashes among politicians, business interests, and religious belief are shaping public awareness about climate change. In the US, this is the result of clear political and quasi-religious propaganda from the likes of oil company lobbyists, Fox News, and Glenn Beck, and in the UK from James Delingpole and Lord Nigel Lawson. Nurse’s attempt to add value to this debate was troubling on a number of levels, firstly, in its framing. Why ask a scientist to front a documentary designed to investigate and consider the problem with scientists? With its many shots of the warm affable Nurse, doing affable normal things, that affable scientist do. Walking down the street and even doing the odd bit of harmless pipetting in the Laboratory.

A recurring problem in the reporting of science is that of asking the scientist to investigate themselves. Much of what is being produced by science journalists is about re-telling science stories rather than investigating science. Too many journalists approach scientists as priests rather than as fallible sources thereby rendering themselves as unquestioning vessels instead of professional diggers and reporters. When they begin their careers they want to be torch bearers for science, correcting erroneous facts, oversimplified concepts and misrepresentations in the media. They also want to engage the public by ensuring that they understand science. These are honourable aims but not those of a science journalist. They are the goals of the science writer and the science communicator. Much of the coverage that is called science journalism is PR and communications masquerading as journalism.

This is a perilous moment for science journalism to be confused. It needs clarity and purpose. The endless myopic science reporting of new discoveries, wonders, devices, findings, gadgets and promises, creates an artefact in the public’s mind of a house of science, a neutral but formidable institution, not located in culture but set apart from society. Who is scrutinising and calling scientists to account? Hopefully not just Sir Paul Nurse.

To raise the question that Connie St Louis posed, "Who is scrutinising and calling (climate) scientists to account?"

As things stand, if left to themselves or science journalists, no one is!

Jul 11, 2011 at 3:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterMac

When they teleconference using equipment powered only by wind turbines for the next 10 years ... I'll pay attention to their propaganda.

Jul 11, 2011 at 4:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruce

Connie St Louis does not appear to have the busiest blog ever ;-) but both posts are really well written and thought-provoking. The only query she has received, on the post last year suggests that many people do not see the need for any "Science Journalism" in the way Connie defines it and are genuinely puzzled by her suggestion that it is needed. I suspect that if you asked a lot of people whether it was needed, they would say no. There is a lot of focus on improving science reporting (e.g. Ben Goldacre), and some discussion of how valid the science is in some important stories - but this tends to be done by mainstream reporters, not experts. "Science" journalists seem to me to do mainly science communication.

Jul 11, 2011 at 4:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Harvey

It sounds as though Connie's got the St. Louis Blues. Maybe this would cheer her up.

Jul 11, 2011 at 5:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterDreadnought

I remember reading Andrew Marr's characterisation of bloggers at the time and thought that it didn't seem to reflect any of the blogs that I read. It seemed to me that the bloggers were doing the jounalist's job for them for free and making a better job of it as well. I thought this every time the mainstream media broke a story that I had read on a blog a year ago.

Jul 11, 2011 at 6:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterStonyground

You should become more forceful Bishop. Stop using the word "seems" every chance you get.This is a weasel word.

Jul 11, 2011 at 7:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Steiner


The understatement is a quaint but effective literary device employing restraint or lack of emphasis in expression, for rhetorical effect.

Jul 11, 2011 at 10:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

I liked your way of presentation. The information you provided is great, Thank you for this, and hope in future you will come with more knowledgeable information.

Jul 12, 2011 at 12:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterrachita singh joshi

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