Last week I attended an evening seminar on health journalism organised by the Patient Information Forum and held at the Trust. Jo Brodie’s written a decent summary of the proceedings on her blog.

The presentations were interesting, though largely of a familiar ilk: both press officers and journalists are partially at fault, fitting responsible health information with news values is a difficult task, the public needs to be more critical of what they read etc. etc.

However, one point got me thinking. Ginny Barbour, Chief Editor of the journal PLoS Medicine, gave a talk about how scientists can help journalists and how journal editors work to get their stories picked up by the press. Usually, she said, they encourage researchers to write more easily understandable titles and abstracts, so that non-specialists can make sense of them. But in one slide she gave the example of a paper they received on suicides in Taiwan. This paper found that media coverage of charcoal-burning suicides was fueling a steep rise in Taiwanese suicides.

Among the authors recommendations are “introducing and enforcing guidelines on media reporting” to deal with the problem. In keeping with this, Barbour and colleagues were happy to stick with the wordy title, ‘The Evolution of Charcoal-burning Suicide in Taiwan: A spatial and temporal analysis’, rather than push for a change (admittedly, the title and abstract aren’t actually that bad for this paper). Barbour argued that in this case it was of more benefit to society for the paper not to be covered in the media. And her team patted themselves on the back when, sure enough, the paper received zero press coverage.

I can certainly see their point of view, and it’s not as if this is an uncommon thing — there are guidelines on reporting suicides in many countries for the same reasons. However, I had to ask myself if it is really in the interest of press freedom not to report findings such as these, particularly if those results could be useful to others. Would knowledge of these results raise awareness and help policymakers prevent future suicides? Or would it give people ideas on how to kill themselves, as they feared?

It reminded me of something an African colleague said to me at a recent meeting. She mentioned how some of her researchers (she’s a communications officer) were unwilling to publicise a paper containing some quite important findings about HIV in the men who have sex with men (MSM) community. The reason? Homophobic activists had trashed one of their labs a few weeks earlier and the scientists were afraid of a repeat. But what is the point of doing such important research if you don’t tell anyone about it, or if the only people who do are those who stumble across your paper in a literature review years after?

This isn’t the same as reporting suicides of course, but it got me thinking about the responsibility to report scientific findings and when social responsibilities, individual responsibilities and journalistic responsibilities clash. Thoughts?

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I know. Horrific, yet brilliant, word isn’t it?

It was one of many puntastic new words picked up at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ Annual Lecture at the Royal Society on Monday night. Other terrible words I liked: obesessing, obesogenic (and turning society from that into a ‘fitogenic’ one). Not exactly what I was expecting to take away from a lecture about the obesity debate, but what I should have expected from a lecture entitled ‘Whose potbelly is it anyway?’.

Overall, it was a great lecture by Professor Inez de Beaufort from the Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam. She gave an interesting multimedia presentation full of comedy clips,Wall-E and visual and textual puns, offering some light relief from the ethical moral philosophising that comes with Nuffield Council territory.

de Beaufort highlighted and expanded on many of the issues discussed in the Council’s recent report on The Ethics of Public Health. The complexities of obesity are well-known: the problems distinguishing genetic and environmental/social influences, the fact that few treatments bar stomach stapling are proven, that risks associated with it are relative to fitness and age. The talk was essentially a tour around the major hotspots in the debate, including what government and society can do to help — and indeed whether they should do.

What de Beaufort did really well in her presentation was matching these to visual and humourous cues that really hit the point home (or at least gave a cheap laugh if you really weren’t listening). One of the nicer examples she used was a YouTube video of the Swedish piano stairs — an example of a societal ‘nudge’ that might be used to change peoples behaviour, this time by making it fun.

As de Beaufort said, it’s a welcome change from the usual blaming and shaming that we use when talking about obesity.

She also made interesting arguments about individual choice. For some, their size is part of that person’s life, and if a person is happy with that choice who has a right to tell them different. Would you tell a sumo wrestler to lose weight just because he is technically fat? Sure, sumo wrestlers die young as a result of their choice, but plenty of people take dangerous decisions with regard to their physical wellbeing all the time — think extreme sports or even taking out extra insurance cover for a ski trip.

de Beaufort also pointed out how odd it is to think of food purely from a health perspective. After all, it plays a major role in so many other parts of life, from social bonding to mourning rituals (as de Beaufort said, “to think of food like this is to think of sex as purely a means of reproduction).

It’s funny how we’ve come to associate looking good with being good when that is often not the case, she said, pointing to pictures of major world leaders acting ‘athletic’ for the camera.

“It’s a case of ‘Beauty and the obese'”.


The Story

21Feb10

The Story

"To thine own self be true"

There have never been so many stories, or so many ways to tell them. We can tell stories in the pub, on television, in books, through games, on stage, over mobile phones, on twitter, in newspapers — any time, place or object that we can share with others can be the birthplace of a story…. This is surely the most exciting time in history to be in the story-telling business.

I had a day off on Friday. Not to go on holiday or laze around or even to fulfill some chore. I took a day off to sit in a conference hall with some 100 other people to just listen to stories.

I’ve said before that learning from your peers is the best way to improve, and indeed to be inspired. That’s why I signed up for The Story. Sometimes the best way to improve your work is to learn from other fields, particularly those perceived to be much more ‘creative’ than your own. Continue reading ‘The Story’


A couple of weeks ago, I arranged for Ed Yong to come to the Trust for a lunchtime talk on science blogging. It was an interesting discussion and very timely given that we’re currently establishing a Wellcome Trust science blog. What was interesting from my perspective was that Ed is someone who blogs for his own highly successful site, but also for an organisation (he writes for Cancer Research UK’s Science Update blog in his day job).

Expecting a lot of questions on Ed’s Not Exactly Rocket Science site, I was pleasantly surprised that a fair number of people seemed interested in what blogging could do from an organisation’s point of view, which bodes well for interest in our own blog.

Ed talked about his reasons for blogging, how it differed from other media and gave his tips on how to run a successful blog. He made some excellent points:

Continue reading ‘Blogging science’


What makes news news? You’d have thought this was fairly simple, but two projects have had me wondering what makes proper news these days.

Wellcome News, the Trust’s main magazine, is published quarterly and every few months I’m tasked with writing the copy. Because of the nature of print deadlines (usually a couple of months before the actual publication date to allow for copyediting, proofreading, design and printing) this often involves writing about things that have yet to happen, meaning that at the time of writing there isn’t much to say about it. This also means that by the time the audience reads about it, the ‘news’ often took place months before.

Meanwhile, as the News Editor of TSR, it’s my job to deliver news articles for the newsletter’s quarterly issue — ‘news’ that more often than not happened months before (do you see a pattern here?). We usually try and do some kind of ‘overview’ or analyses, rounding up the coverage of a particularly big science journalism/communication issue, but really, in the world of 24 hour, real-time information, who wants to read about stuff that already appeared everywhere months ago?

Continue reading ‘The quarterly ‘news’’


I was just catching up on Nature’s blog coverage of the ‘mobile phones prevent Alzheimer’s disease‘ story, when this paragraph leapt out at me:

In the study – which was originally released in September last year but has only just been press released – researchers exposed mice genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s and un-modified mice to the electromagnetic field generated by standard cell phone usage for two one-hour periods a day.

Yep, the study was published four months ago, but only made the headlines this week because of a press release.

Now, this isn’t new. I come across this all the time in my day job — we’re often sent press releases from universities or research institutes about papers that were published up to six months before. But you might wonder why this happens.

Continue reading ‘The ‘news’ – four months late’


Back when I used to work at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, our office used to look something like this:

Too much paper!

Well not really. But not far from that.

Because of its mission to ‘examine ethical issues raised by new developments in biology and medicine’, the Council is constantly scanning the latest developments in all sorts of areas, from nanotechnology to GM crops, personalised medicine and stem cells. As such, it subscribes to a huge amount of scientific journals, magazines and newspapers.

Back in the day, one of my duties was helping to keep track of all this. The Deputy Directors, Research Officers and Press Officer would scan through every publication and mark on a little sheet what was worth keeping on file for future reference. Then I would disappear into the photocopying room for hours on end, making copies of each article and filing them in hundreds of paper files hanging all over our office. It was boring, tedious and absolute madness.

Such a thing would be unthinkable today, just five years later. Why would you make copies when practically all articles are available to view anytime online? And why have hundreds of files when you can use web bookmarking tools like Delicious to tag the link to an article, with as many tags as you like, all searchable and sortable in seconds?

Today I bookmark and tag practically every interesting thing I read, which helps no end when I find I need to revisit a topic for research (though admittedly my tags need a bit of pruning). I’m thankful to my old job for this useful habit, but thank goodness I don’t have to sit around in the photocopying room by myself anymore.