Media distortion of science or sloppy subediting?

In a recent(ish) issue of New Scientist, Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, complains about misrepresentation of scientific research by subeditors looking for snappy headlines and memorable standfirsts.

In his printed response to an article in the Guardian about his research group’s study of foetal testosterone levels and post-natal autistic traits, Baron-Cohen makes a point of focusing on the headline rather than the body text of the piece written by health editor Sarah Bosely, with which he has little or no problem. I can see his point.

“Who are the headline writers?”, asks Baron-Cohen. Well, they are members of the overworked and underpaid sub-species of Homo journalisticus known as subeditors. While many of them are highly talented and creative individuals, subs are a breed apart from correspondents and columnists, and there is often little communication between the three groups. Newspaper articles may be bylined, but the degree of accountability is not as great as Baron-Cohen thinks it is or should be.

For one thing there are legal issues with intellectual property rights possessed by staff journalists. If you are an employee of a media organisation, your output automatically becomes the property of your employer. By default you assign copyright to a corporate body, and cease having any further interest in it. Having your name attached to an article you wrote makes no difference, as moral rights are also ceded on taking the publisher’s shilling.

That is how a newspaper can get away with taking words written by a junior hack, and bylining them with the name of a senior correspondent. Or the work of a postdoctoral slave in a scientific research lab can end up published in a learned journal with the group head as lead author, even though the latter may have had no more than a supervisory role in the project.

And what of editors in news media? Communication between writers and editors tends to be a non-linear progression (or regression), with text shuttled from writer to copy/sub-editor to production editor to press. The final stages in this process can occur in rapid succession.

Writers may complain about the mangling of their word-perfect text and/or misrepresentation by ignorant subs, but rarely does anything come of this. How we can rectify the situation I have no idea, but I’m not at all convinced by Baron-Cohen’s offhand call for regulation along the lines of the ethics committees which oversee the work of research scientists. Such bodies simply wouldn’t work with the extremely tight timescales involved in news reporting.

On a final note, I find it ironic that the title of Baron-Cohen’s piece is “Media distortion damages both science and journalism”. In some ways this over-simplification misrepresents the content of Baron-Cohen’s article, but can I think of a better form of words? Not off the top of my head.