Communicating risk – Mark Henderson

In the fourth of our interviews on the Fukushima crisis, Mark Henderson, Science Editor of The Times, tells us about how to get the tone of reports right, and why the relationship between science and the media is getting better.

How do you go about obtaining scientific information for your article? Can you give any examples of this from Japan?

There was a number of source s of information coming out of Japan. For example the Japanese atomic industry forum was regularly posting information

As to what is reliable, that has to be a judgement call.  The stuff coming from the company running the Fukushima facility and the Japanese government weren’t great, and they were the ones with the direct information! The organisation [Atomic Industry Forum] was receiving information from the site so was reasonably reliable. It is difficult to work out what is to be trusted and what isn’t, what was fact and what wasn’t, so we made the decision to be clear about what was speculation.

How do this compare with the volcanic ash situation?

It was easier to get information then as organisations were less secretive. However, in that instance, it was harder to judge what the risks were from the information!

Because it was difficult to know what was happening in Japan, what we could, and did, do from information available was get good nuclear experts etc to get give a range of possible outcomes and opinions [based on that information]. Then, tell the readers the differences between the different possibilities and the likely outcomes based on what was known.

Sir John Beddington talked about SAGE evaluating worst case scenario versus most likely outcome – how responsible are the media at distinguishing between the two?

As always, some are and some aren’t. The media isn’t a whole; there are many different facets of the media and some are responsible, some aren’t. For example; the ’48 hours from Chernobyl’ headline. It was clear very early on that this was a very different situation from Chernobyl.

There are always some media outlets and journalists that made things seem sensational, wanting to play out the worst case scenario at every point.  There are sometimes issues with a lack of understanding with non-science correspondents. For example; they don’t know how a nuclear reactor works.

I have been very lucky at The Times. [Hannah Devlin and myself] have had nothing but support from the senior editorial team. They appreciated that it was a big story, but that it was compelling enough without sensationalising it.

How easy is it to get an accurate story across?

Everyone is learning as they go along to a certain point. The responsible thing to do is reflect the range of outcomes in any case. You do have to take a degree of judgement on what expert opinion to take to help this process.

Does [knowing which expert advice to take] support a role for science-specialist journalism?

It definitely helps. But not everyone has a science specialism, for example the presenters of the Today programme.

Do you think that any researchers were reluctant to talk to the media for fear of their remarks being misinterpreted?

In the Japan story, there was no reluctance; they felt the need to get the information out into the public. [Scientists talking to the media] has got much better and the Science Media Centre has helped also.

It has improved. It used to be the case that scientists just ignored the media and wouldn’t dignify them with a response. But they realised that it wouldn’t stop the media reporting the story, and that they were losing their voice in the debate. So now they are, more often than not, keen to speak with the media.

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 media has focused more on the Fukushima crisis. I’m not saying its right but I can see why. The nuclear crisis was emerging and developing over time whereas the tsunami was a ‘one-off’ event. The death toll from the radiation is still 0 [at time of writing] whereas there is a 5 figure death toll from the tsunami, but there was a better narrative for the nuclear situation.

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