Minister: health hysteria reveals media ignorance

Science minister Lord Sainsbury has urged the media to 'improve their understanding of science' and refrain from whipping up hysteria over health scares.

Speaking at a fringe meeting in Manchester, he said: ‘We have some fine science correspondents in this country. The situation goes wrong when a story is handed to political correspondents.'

Entitled ‘Science fact or science fiction: how should politicians respond to media scare stories?', the meeting was organised by think-tank Social Market Foundation.

Sainsbury's sentiments were echoed by Sir John Krebs, principal at Jesus College, Oxford. He was from 2000 to 2005 chairman of the Food Standards Agency, during the Sudan-1 ‘cancer dye' scare.

‘Food stories encounter difficulties when they are dealt with by [non-science] correspondents,' Krebs said. ‘Newspapers want controversy, villains, heroes, sex, money and death.'

Dominic Wake, comms manager at drugs firm Lilly UK and a delegate at the meeting, bemoaned the media's focus on ‘miracle cures or killer drugs'.

But a Breast Cancer Care delegate stressed the need ‘to target the popular press' and not rely on ‘people we find it more comfortable and easy to talk to'.

Sainsbury and Krebs called on the science community to better engage with the public and media. Sainsbury said it needed to better anticipate ‘ethical, safety and environmental impacts of new technology' and to ‘put research programmes in place' that will ‘put scare stories to bed'.

He added that when a scare story emerges, ‘the worst thing scientists can do is bury their heads in the sand and hope it blows over'.

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