Finally, help for science journalists

Peter CalamaiWhen it comes to science stories, overworked reporters often resort to rounding up quotes from duelling experts, writes Peter Calamai.

Peter CalamaiWhen it comes to science stories, overworked reporters often resort to rounding up quotes from duelling experts, writes Peter Calamai. Enter the recently launched Science Media Centre of Canada, which will arm journalists with information and help them cover stories with science content.

Usually flu season passes with minimal media attention, despite thousands of deaths. Yet for months Canadians have been marinating in a media deluge about H1N1 influenza, the swine flu variety. So try these questions:

A. An authoritative analysis of the effectiveness of flu vaccines concluded that vaccination reduced the number of people needing to take time off work or to go to the hospital:
1.    not at all
2.    by 10 per cent
3.    by 30 per cent
4.    by 70 per cent

B. A Canadian study concluded that the surgical face masks widely worn during the height of the pandemic concern:
1.    are designed to protect the patient not the wearer
2.    don’t provide an effective seal, allowing inhalable particles to enter the respiratory tract
3.    have filters that let though as much as 92 per cent of smaller particles
4.    all of the above

C. The half-century-old method of growing vaccine viruses in chicken eggs initially resulted in lower-than-expected yields. Well-advanced research into alternate techniques includes:
1.    cloning the protective antigen protein and growing it in bacteria
2.    using caterpillars as the initial growth medium
3.    growing flu viruses in mammalian cells, such as canine kidney cells
4.    innovations at Michael Butler’s lab at the University of Manitoba

You are unlikely to find the answers to these questions in the recent flu coverage by the major print and broadcast outlets. Their stories featured conflict and controversy, from delays in the delivery of vaccine to long line-up at clinics. Nor is that result surprising, since it is the default mode for reporters who do not understand a complicated story, or lack the time and resources to get a handle on it.

This occurs most commonly with stories that have a scientific dimension, since so few journalists in Canada possess the educational background or reporting experience to feel as comfortable with aspects of science, medicine, or technology as they do local politics, economics, or even sports. Rather than seek out truly authoritative material on a complex subject, overworked reporters resort to rounding up quotes from duelling experts.

That is largely what happened in the Canadian media coverage about the effectiveness of H1N1 flu vaccine and other aspects of the pandemic with a science dimension. What could have raised the level of reporting, without adding substantially to the journalistic workload?

For starters, a mere mouse click takes you to a study that pulls together the findings from 48 reports into the effectiveness, efficacy and harm of flu vaccine. The Vaccines for preventing influenza in healthy adults review was authored by the Cochrane Collaboration, a global consortium of experts in evidence-based medicine.

A Factiva check of 10 major Canadian dailies* (and CTV news) from May to early December found only two references, both in the Toronto Star, to the Cochrane Collaboration report. Neither Star story provided key details of the April 2007 report, re-posted online this past June, but instead quoted one of the Cochrane researchers who had written an article for The Atlantic Monthly.

Equally striking was the absence of stories in the media about a Canadian survey of effectiveness of "personal protective respiratory equipment" in combating the transmission of the flu virus. The report was one of the early expert assessments from the country's scientific brains trust, the Council of Canadian Academies, and it garnered a tiny bit of coverage when initially published in December 2007. Yet when the pandemic story roiled this year, the media suffered collective amnesia about this now extremely timely verdict on surgical masks, with the exception of CBC news and Marketplace.

By contrast, there was much more reporting about the initial low yields of H1N1 vaccine from the traditional chicken egg production technique. But the scan of 10 newspapers and CTV news found no instance of a follow-up that looked into alternative methods of producing flu vaccines. These are hardly theoretical.

Cell culture technology, for instance, is widely thought to offer greater flexibility and speed. Pharmaceutical giant Novartis is currently building a billion dollar plant in North Carolina scheduled to begin producing vaccines from cell cultures by 2011, with full commercial output by 2013. The U.S. government awarded Novartis more than $700 million to spur this research and development.

Yet the Factiva scan turned up just one reference to the promising cell culture approach during the past six months, a Washington Post story carried by the Vancouver Sun in November. There was zero coverage of any of the other alternative approaches, all considered promising by researchers but none as far advanced.

In other words, for all the talent, energy, newsprint and air time invested in this year's coverage of the flu, a considerable amount of crucial information has been ignored, overlooked or simply misunderstood. I say this not to excoriate the journalists who took on this story. They had to struggle with less-than-forthcoming vaccine manufacturers, public health officials who alternated between scare-mongering and Pollyannaism and overwhelmed front-line health care workers.

Even so, I believe that the findings from these scientific reports could have become a valuable part of mainstream reporting at a time when Canadians were most interested in H1N1, had they been flagged for journalists by the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC).

Unfortunately that was not possible. Right now the SMCC consists of a single paid employee who will move into donated office space next month at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. By next summer, however, the Centre should be operational, following a path blazed by science media centres in the U.K. (2002), Australia (2005) and New Zealand (2008). It will offer without charge a wide range of services to help journalists cover stories with science content – especially valuable to journalists who are not specialists in science, medicine and the environment, those much-put-upon General Assignment reporters.

There isn't space here to spell out all the details of the Centre – funding, autonomy, freedom from any institutional agenda, vetting and selection of research experts and the planned professional development workshops for journalists. Much of that information is available on the Centre's website, including the complete feasibility study, business plan and financial projections prepared by an independent management consulting firm. More information can be requested through a link.

If the Science Media Centre of Canada is as successful as its sister centres, then the next pandemic in this country should find journalists better armed to explain the scientific aspects to the public.

ANSWERS: A 1, B 4, C 3

* Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Winnipeg Free Press, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette.

Peter Calamai is a member of the all-volunteer steering committee of the Science Media Centre of Canada. A founding member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association in 1970, he was the national science reporter for the Toronto Star from 1998 to 2008, based in Ottawa. From 1969 to 1973 he covered science, medicine and environment news for Southam News. He can be reached at