Communicating Risk – Robin McKie

On the 11th March, a devastating earthquake hit northeast Japan, causing a tsunami and resulting in a huge loss of life. It also affected nuclear power plants in the region, including the one in Fukishima. As sketchy details about possible nuclear hazards found their way into the international media, the media spotlight turned away from the humanitarian crisis and focused on the events at the Fukishima plant. Scientific information was vital both in the reporting of this story and advising British nationals in the area.

Anna Perman and I interviewed Imperial College researchers who spoke to the media, journalists who reported the story, and the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor to investigate the unique challenges of communicating this risk to the public. We reflected on the outcomes of our investigation in an audio blog for Refractive Index but here we will post full transcripts of the interviews.

Interview with Robin McKie, science and technology editor for The Observer.

How do you go about obtaining scientific information for your articles during times of emergency?

It depends on the issue. In Japan we were very much helped by the Science Media Centre; they were constantly running briefings. Also [a science journalist] will have an address book of contacts. There are people on the ground [in Japan] to give colour to the story and then those who are trying to make sense of the situation with the help of experts [back in the UK].

It has been said that during the first few hours that the details coming out of Japan were unclear – how difficult was it to get information?

It was patchy. Sometimes you just have to put your hands up and say you don’t know. You have to be honest about what you know. The broadsheets were good at this. For example, the Guardian and Times were responsible in their reporting what was or wasn’t known.

How important is the amount of scientific detail you include in a piece?

If you have more than 3 salient facts then there is too much for the feature. [A science specialist reporter] is battling more than any other specialist with reader ignorance. There is a desire to know about science but there is a fear of it being complicated.

The media has seemed to focus of the Fukushima situation at the expense of the earthquake damage and tsunami victims; do you think this is fair?

The coverage of what was happening at Fukushima skewed the story away from what was an actual disaster. Initially it was made to look like nuclear disaster was imminent when it wasn’t. There was too much emphasis on nuclear and not enough on what else was happening.

Do you think scientists are reluctant to talk to the media for fear of their remarks being misinterpreted or misused?

Scientists will always speak to the media. The American scientists will answer questions straight away, whereas the UK researchers (in a terribly British way) will have a think and come back to you in a few hours. I have been in this role for 29 years and the situation has improved.

Scientists now have to justify grants etc in ways that never did before, so they will speak to the press to raise their profile.

Do you think that scientist’s quotes are always used in the right context in science reporting?

They aren’t always used in the right context, and it is very difficult to put them in the right context. You are condensing complex situation into about 800 words, people forget how difficult that is.

What is the biggest challenge to being a science specialist reporter?

Until a few years ago the biggest challenge was getting copy – but that is now getting much better, and I often have more space than I have time to fill these days. So now the biggest challenge is to not overload the reader with [scientific] detail but still provide them with enough information.

Can you give me an overview of how good you thought the reporting of the Japanese disaster was?

Actually the coverage of the disaster was very good. The Daily Mail’s 1st issue on the disaster was good and looked superb! The science editors got it right about the nuclear power station, but some were overridden by news desk sensationalism.

Compared to past emergencies – the trouble comes when science takes on a political aspect such as the MMR controversy. The setting up of the Science Media Centre has helped but the reporting of climate change is deplorable.

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