Fukushima and the death of science journalism in Australia

Noel Wauchope

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

Investigative journalists would do well to investigate what is happening to science news writing in Australia. Australian media has never been an enthusiastic employer of scientifically informed journalists. They've been few and far between in the Australian press. Perhaps because their area of interest is not considered "sexy"?

Within the last few months, there's been an exodus of journalists from the Australian media. Amongst the departures − science journalists. There is a resource, for journalists in general, called the Australian Science Media Centre (AuSMC). Sounds really good, doesn't it? But more about that later.

Where does this leave science writing? I knew that quality science journalism in Australia was dwindling. It took the most recent pro-nuclear advertorial in the Fairfax media to really wake me up to this. John Watson, 'Senior writer' at Fairfax Media, wrote an article entitled, 'Want to kill fewer people? Go nuclear' (posted at tinyurl.com/watson-junk-science).

To be fair to John Watson, his article is easily interpreted by the average reader. Readable, not believable. He starts off – rather unwisely – with the time honoured denigration of those who prefer anti-nuclear opinions: "... a pitchfork-waving mob who demand we have nothing to do with nuclear power, while relying on other energy sources that all kill more people."

The article is full of bald and incorrect generalisations: "Nuclear power is the safest source of energy by a long way. Solar power causes five to 10 times as many deaths."

Watson misrepresents statements from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation Panel (UNSCEAR), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), regarding Fukushima. UNSCEAR's brief unofficial preliminary report has now been taken down from their website. Both these recent reports stated that there should be an expected rise in cancer amongst women who were exposed to Fukushima radiation as children.

He minimises the problem of storing nuclear waste and sidesteps the core question of the economics of the nuclear fuel cycle. He implies that nuclear power is cheap, without exactly saying so. Why have The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and others sunk to this level of sloppy journalism?

Apart from the obvious fact they don't want to offend their corporate backers, this kind of writing is symptomatic of what happens when you get rid of your qualified dedicated science journalists. Amongst the plethora of Fairfax journalists encouraged to depart their jobs were science editor Deborah Smith, health editor Julie Robotham, health correspondent Mark Metherell and environment reporter Rossyln Beeby. 

Murdoch media

That's Fairfax. But what about the Murdoch media? The Murdoch media never had much of a problem in its coverage of science. The Australian blithely publishes science articles written by journalists who are clearly far from expert in the field of science. This has been documented by Tim Lambert with his article, 'The Australian's War on Science' (tinyurl.com/lambert-war). In it he goes about scrutinising, in depth, writers such as Maurice Newman and Graham Lloyd. The Australian did have one qualified science writer, Leigh Dayton. No more.

This brings me back to the Australian Science Media Centre. It seems like a good idea and it's a not-for-profit project. It does raise the question: is it wise to get rid of real science journalists and depend on a centralised body which may well undermine science journalism?

A large empirical study was undertaken recently by Andy Williams of Cardiff University in the UK. It confirmed that science PR is increasing while independent science journalism is decreasing. The development of science media centres (SMCs) has been problematic as far as coverage of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The use of SMCs around the world has assisted the nuclear industry. It has seemingly got TEPCO and others out of paying huge compensation to those impacted by the disaster.

The independent scientist was squeezed out of the media long ago. These days, you are more likely to read work by pro-industry journalists that don't have a grip on the full impact of nuclear disasters.

An article at nuclear-news.net provides a number of references revealing how experts from SMCs have downplayed the seriousness of the Fukushima nuclear disaster (tinyurl.com/fuku-smc). I note that the "experts" writing about ionising radiation and health were nuclear engineers − not radiation biologists.

The article states: "I just wanted to introduce you to this side of the science "debate" and how the science is corrupted and biased without independent scientists to keep a check and balance. I was surprised to see the Australian SMC coming out in strength to ignore the plight of the children of Fukushima and save the nuclear industry from a well deserved collapse."

I'm not alone when it comes to lamenting the reduction of science journalists in the Australian media. The subject's discussed eloquently by Melissa Sweet and Leigh Dayton at a Crikey in a piece called: 'From the perfect job to an endangered species: the demise of science journalism and why it matters' (tinyurl.com/sweet-dayton).

Australia's Science Media Centre says it is dedicated to: "helping scientists work effectively with the news media". Yes, it's a not-for-profit funded by various reputable organisations. They include the CSIRO, the South Australian, New South Wales, and Victoria Governments, Australia Pacific LNG, News Limited, BHP Billiton and a number of universities. I repeat, it does sound good.

Yet how do general journalists scrutinise and distinguish between what is an independent science story and what is a pro-business story? How easy might it be for general journalists to be discouraged from covering certain topics?

In Australia, many industries already release media statements that are easily included in an article by a general journalist. If the subject is complex – e.g. the health effects of Fukushima radiation – it is all too easy to go to the science media centre and get a comforting article from a nuclear engineer. Just as has happened in Japan and the UK.

This article is reprinted from Independent Australia, www.independentaustralia.net