The best and worst science stories revealed

The Media7 science special just screened on TVNZ7 and included the section on the best and worst science stories of the last year – as decided by the Scibloggers and you, the Sciblogs readers.

Thanks so much for your submissions – many of the stories won’t appear in the lists below, but we gave due consideration to all entries and had to be ruthless in getting down to the top 5 in each category.

Congratulations to those reporters and media organisations that ended up on the “best of” list. For those on the “worst of” list, hey, we all have our bad days. I was a journalist for long enough, I had enough of my own. The key is to look at what went wrong and what can be learnt for the future. What it shouldn’t mean is to put science stories in the “too hard” basket. If you are doing the story for the right reasons and applying the proper journalistic rigour, the audience will appreciate that.

Best of…

1. Too hot to handle – An excellent New Zealand Listener cover story that looks at the scientific evidence on vitamin D and our health balanced against the need to avoid skin cancer by limiting our exposure to the sun. A wide range of views are canvassed here. A n excellent summary of a complex science-related issue. November 13, 2010 (Ruth, Laugesen, New Zealand Listener)

2. Ken Ring’s quake theories – how scientific are they? – An effort to put things right after the disastrous Campbell Live interview and a good example of how science can actually be explained properly with the right dose of “balance” achieved, in a relatively short TV piece. March (Tristram Clayton, TV3)

3. Animal death toll ends cloning trials – A story that looked at the discontinuation of cloning trials at an Agresearch facility. Not only was it a great front page scoop that relied on the reporter seeking documents under the Official Information Act, but the science-related details were dealt with carefully and were well translated for a general audience. February 21, 2011 (Kiran Chug, Dominion Post)

4. The Climate dissenter holds his ground – An in-depth piece looking at University of Auckland scientist associate professor Chris de Freitas, and the seemingly skewed nature of his teachings on climate change. A piece that highlights the issues that emerge when scientists reject the consensus view of science and do so under the banner of ’academic freedom’. July 16, 2011 (Chris Barton, New Zealand Herald)

5. The case for vaccination – A thorough, absorbing read in North & South that looks at the science behind vaccination, the commonly held beliefs around the lack of safety of vaccines and the impact of diseases such as measles and meningitis which are to a large extent avoidable through vaccination. Thoroughly researched and well-written. June 2010 (Joanna Wane, North & South)

Worst of…

1. Living Proof – 60 Minutes piece on the treatment with high dose vitamin C of a King Country farmer struck down with swine flu – A woeful piece of journalism where the crucial questions remained unanswered because the reporter failed to ask anyone with a scientific or medical background equipped to answer them.   August 16, 2010 (Melanie Reid, TV3)

2. Ken Ring – Moon man interviewed. John Campbell Campbell Live interview with earthquake predictor Ken Ring – not only an awful interview, but one where the presenter’s attempts to lay out the scientific evidence was flawed to the extent that it just served to confuse the audience – and win sympathy for Ken Ring. February 28, 2011 (John Campbell, TV3)

3. Fruit juice, apples linked to fetus harm – The findings of a Liggins Institute paper were misreported giving the alarmist impression that pregnant mothers could be harming their babies by drinking too much fruit juice or apples containing fructose – a natural sugar. In fact, the research really raised concerns about fructose contained in processed foods that had been artificially sweetened. Led to public confusion and a backlash from pregnant mothers. February 12, 2011 (Isaac Davison, New Zealand Herald)

4. Gassing fakes meat freshness – An alarmist front page lead story in the Sunday Star Times that raises concerns about meat preservation techniques that are widely used by the meat industry – but fails to get include any sources with scientific expertise who can actually explain what meat gassing is. A shonky story that sparked the Science Media Centre to actually find out from experts what the real risks there were, if any, from using this technique. February 6, 2011 (Lois Cairns, Sunday Star Times)

5. Two sides to a story – US quake predictor Jim Berkland was interviewed by Mark Sainsbury on Close Up just a few days before Ken Ring’s March 20 earthquake prediction. While Sainsbury followed up the interview with a live cross to a seismologist and psychologist in Christchurch, the interview with Jim Berkland saw many numerous points go unchallenged. It was inadequate interrogation of major claims, with the science completely sidelined, despite Berkland’s status as a former USBS scientist. An oft-repeated flaw in the treatment of science stories where psuedoscience is put up against established science with talking heads ’duking it out’.  March 17, 2011 (Mark Sainsbury, Close Up)

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