Friday, November 30, 2012

Press guidelines for reporting science stories post Leveson

The Guardian 29 November 2012 by Fiona Fox

The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and subeditors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate. They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs ["news in brief" items] will not be able to cover every point. Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicalities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents. Wherever possible, the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works.

• State the source of the story – eg interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
• Specify the size and nature of the study – eg who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
• When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
• Give a sense of the stage of the research – eg cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time frame for any new treatment or technology.
• On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper - ie if "cupcakes double cancer risk" state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
• Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – eg does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
• If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
• Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don't suggest health advice if none has been offered.
• Remember patients: don't call something a "cure" that is not a cure.
• Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story's contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Multiple learnings following Sandy

It seems a lot of things failed as a result of super-storm Sandy.  Here are a few examples.

New York Times 31 October 2012 
 *  "Power systems failures throughout the Northeast have been the main culprits in the shutdown of more than 20 percent of the cell tower sites in 10 states, causing millions of lost calls on Wednesday". "Slow progress was made in restoring some services."
* Emergency calls (911) were interrupted by the storm.  Although the service was re-established fairly quickly it involved calls being routed to different centres and in some cases the centres did not know where the call was coming from.

Wall Street Journal 31 October 2012
* People have returned to using pay phones for the first time in many years because mobile phone services were unavailable

Infoworld 5 November 2012
*  Many data centres were left without power
* The demand for mobile generators was greater than supply so that many of the centres could not establish back-up power

Prorepublica 1 November 2012
* NYU hospital's backup system undone by key part being located in flooded basement
* Langone Medical Center had spent several million dollars protecting its backup power system from flooding
* Had removed a fuel tank and a set of emergency generators at street level and switched to an “extremely modern, extremely reliable” system of rooftop generators
* One vulnerability remained, and it proved to be the system’s Achilles Heel. A portion of the hospital’s power distribution circuits, which direct the generated electricity out into various areas of the hospital, were located in the hospital’s basement.

One observer has made the following comment "Cell networks are the first to become overloaded, first to fail, and the hardest to restore."