Social Issues Research Centre Front Page

PRESS RELEASE - 21 September 2000


Top scientists, doctors and journalists welcome new Guidelines on responsible health reporting.

"Careless talk costs lives" is the key message of new Guidelines on Health and Science Communication, published today, September 21st 2000. The Guidelines aim to prevent the public health damage caused by scare stories, and the raising of false hopes by misleading reports of 'miracle cures' for serious illnesses.

The Guidelines have been developed by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) and the Royal Institution (RI), in consultation with a forum of leading scientists, doctors and journalists. SIRC and the RI emphasised that the Guidelines are a result of collaboration between journalists and scientists, who share equal responsibility for ensuring accurate and unbiased reporting of research findings.

The SIRC/RI Guidelines were produced in response to a call for a Code of Practice on science reporting by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology, in their report on GM foods. Dr Michael Clark, MP, Chairman of the Committee, has been centrally involved in the development of the Guidelines.

The Guidelines include a basic 'rule-of-thumb' test to help both scientists and journalists judge the potential effects of their reports, as well as more detailed advice on ensuring accurate and responsible communication of scientific developments, health risks and medical advances. The 'rule-of-thumb' test suggests that any journalist or scientist about to release a story about a potential health risk or potential cure should first imagine what effect their report could have on a relative or close friend who is sensitive or vulnerable to such information on that topic - a parent with cancer, for example, or a friend on the Pill.

Lord Wakeham, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, said: "The publication today of SIRC's Guidelines underlines the importance of [the PCC] rules in regard to reporting of scientific and medical stories. I therefore welcome them as a constructive and positive contribution in this crucial area."

Forum member Sir John Krebs, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, also welcomed the Guidelines and commented that they would help to "reduce the distortions and sensationalism which so often are associated with stories about what we should or should not eat."

Steve Connor, Science Editor of the Independent and one of the Forum's advisors, commented: "It is something many of us do automatically but there is no harm in having this idea in written guidance. It might do some good."

Peter Bell, former Head of BBC News Programmes, said: "Health really matters to people. News of an advance in medical science, or a health scare, can touch the lives of thousands - and it is vital the information made available to them is accurate and trustworthy. In producing the SIRC/RI Guidelines, doctors and scientists have pooled their expertise and experience with media professionals in search of a consensus on how the public interest might best be served. The result is a constructive and thoughtful document worthy of serious consideration by all concerned with the business of keeping the public properly informed."

But the most heartfelt response to the new Guidelines has come from doctors, who have to cope the real-life consequences of misleading health stories.

Dr David Haslam, who represents the Royal College of General Practitioners on the Forum, said: "General Practitioners will enthusiastically welcome these Guidelines. As front-line doctors who have to deal with both the scare stories and the apparent wonder cures, often on the very day that the news first breaks, they understand the very real problems that over-enthusiastic reporting can cause for patients, and the potential disasters that can occur when frightened patients abandon proven therapies."

Mr Henry Marsh, a Consultant Neurosurgeon, said: "Every week I see patients with malignant tumours whose hopes have been cruelly and falsely raised by over-optimistic reports in the media of new treatments. The SIRC/RI Guidelines will reduce much unnecessary suffering by encouraging a more sensitive and responsible approach, both by the doctors and scientists involved in experimental work and also by the journalists reporting it."

The Guidelines advise both journalists and scientists to state any limitations or caveats clearly, preferably within the first few lines of a report or press release - particularly where findings are preliminary; have not been peer-reviewed; have not been replicated; differ markedly from previous findings; are based on small, unrepresentative or animal samples; or have found only a statistical correlation.

When reporting on potential health risks, scientists and journalists should always cite 'absolute' rather than 'relative' risks. (A "30% increased risk" of contracting a disease sounds very alarming, but may actually only mean an increase in 'absolute' risk from 1 in 10,000 to 1.3 in 10,000.) When reporting on medical advances, the limitations of any new treatment, procedure or product should be stated very early and prominently in the report.

SIRC also announced plans for further initiatives, including the development of resources for journalists such as an independent expert-contacts database, and a series of workshops bringing together doctors, scientists and journalists to discuss ways of improving communication on health and science issues. Professor Susan Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, stressed the urgent need for such measures: "It is vital that more dialogue develops before another crisis breaks."

Contacts: Kate Fox, Dr Peter Marsh
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