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Recommendations of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Guidelines on Science and Health Communication

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The Royal Society has now joined SIRC and the Royal Institution to produce a single set of guidelines on the reporing of science and health issues in the media. These replace the earlier SIRC / RI guidelines and the Royal Society's notes for journalists and editors.

The published document – Guidelines on science and health communication – represents the strong consensus of the science and health communities in the United Kingdom. They have also been formally endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission and fully debated in the House of Lords. (Click here to read the PCC's view of the SIRC guidelines in the section 'Science Reporting'. Click here for the transcript of the Lords' debate.)

The publication of a single document, of course, will not in itself lead to the eradication of the distortion and sensationalism which so often accompanies reporting of health and science issues. The spreading of unfounded anxieties, together with the generation of false optimism through talk of 'miracles' and 'breakthroughs', are entrenched media habits which may take some time to replace with more balanced and accurate coverage. At the same time we recognise that the sources of distortion and misrepresentation often lie within the science and health communities themselves and the manner in which they present their research to the public. It is for these reasons that a new charity has been established – The Health and Science Communication Trust (HCST).

The HSCT will be organising seminars and workshops to bring together reporters, broadcasters, doctors and scientists to discuss the issues in a non-confrontational manner. They will aim to give journalists a better understanding of the potentially harmful effects of inaccurate or unbalanced reporting of health and science issues. Equally, the seminars aim to provide those in the science and medical professions with a better understanding of the pressures faced by journalists and their requirements for the generation of 'interesting' stories.

The Guidelines themselves will be subject to revision in the light of comments received. HCST will take on the role of eliciting such feedback in early 2002 and an open forum will be established on the charity's web site. Until that time comments should be addressed to