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Last Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006, 15:00 GMT
Media 'sensationalising science'
Injection (Corbis)
The study links the MMR media furore to the fall in vaccine take-up
A report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF), an independent research group, has accused the UK media of sensationalising science.

It says irresponsible reporting can undermine public confidence in science and government, and on issues such as vaccination may even cost lives.

The think-tank blames inaccurate reporting for the scare that led some parents to shun the MMR vaccine.

The SMF study was sponsored by mobile phone operators in the UK.

Claudia Wood of the SMF said journalists tended to seek black and white stories and looked for certainties that could not be provided by science.

"The media has to be very aware that what it says can have huge impacts on the public's behaviour," she told the BBC.

"I think the media has to be very cautious in how it gives over scientific evidence, and has to make sure that people understand that there are certain risks to some things but a lot of the time evidence isn't conclusive."

'Inherent mistrust'

The pamphlet - Science, Risk and the Media: Do the front pages reflect reality? - was based on a meeting of experts at the three main political party conferences, last year.

Man reading Daily Mail newspaper.  Image: BBC
The Daily Mail: Under fire over its MMR coverage
They considered how policymakers can better engage with the public on scientific and technological issues.

"The public's inherent mistrust of government and its motives is exacerbated by the media's sensationalist treatment of scientific stories," said Ann Rossiter, director of the SMF.

"Such misreporting can have fatal consequences: in 1998, the Daily Mail devoted some 700 stories to MMR creating the erroneous impression that the vaccine was dangerous.

"Following this, the number of people being inoculated against MMR fell by 20%, increasing the danger of these life-threatening diseases."

The experts made several recommendations for improving scientific understanding among the public:

  • Newspapers and broadcasters should employ more science graduates
  • Scientists and science graduates should be encouraged to undertake media training
  • Universities should offer multidisciplinary science degrees which include issues of ethics
  • Policymakers need a better understanding of public perceptions of risk
Copies of the pamphlet can be obtained from the SMF in Westminster, London.

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19 May 03 |  North West Wales

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