Tag Archives: media

Press complaint: Daily Mail vs. BICEP2 commentators

In March of this year, immediately following the jubilation surrounding the BICEP2 results, the Daily Mail published a bizarre opinion piece on two scientists that were interviewed about the experiment on BBC’s Newsnight programme. The gist of the article was that the Beeb was cynically polishing its “political correctness” credentials by inviting the scientists to the programme, because they were both non-white and non-male. More details about the debacle can be found in this Guardian article.

Now, I’m not much of a Daily Mail fan at the best of times, but this struck me as particularly egregious; not only were their facts wrong and their tone borderline racist and sexist (in my opinion, at least), but they also seemed to be mistaking science for some sort of all white, all-boys club that women and people of other ethnic groups have no right to involve themselves with. This is damaging to all of us in science, not just those who were personally attacked – so I complained.

I just received word back on my complaint, which was sent to the Press Complaints Commission in the UK, who have the job of (sort of) regulating the press. Their response is reproduced below in full; my allegation of factual inaccuracy was upheld, but they declined to act on the allegation of inappropriate racial/gender commentary because I wasn’t one of the parties being discussed.

Commission’s decision in the case of

A man [me] v Daily Mail

The complainant expressed concern about an article which he considered to have been inaccurate and discriminatory, in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The article was a comment piece, in which the columnist had critically noted Newsnight’s selection of “two women….to comment on [a] report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe”.

Under the terms of Clause 1 (i) of the Code, newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate information, and under Clause 1 (ii) a significant inaccuracy or misleading statement must be corrected promptly, and with “due prominence”.

The newspaper explained that its columnist’s focus on gender and ethnicity was designed to be nothing more than a “cheeky reference” to the BBC’s alleged political correctness. In the columnist’s view, the selection of Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Hiranya Peiris to comment on the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) study was another such example of this institutional approach.

The complainant, however, noted the BICEP2 team were, in fact, a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-national group which included women, something which the newspaper accepted. Furthermore, he said that white, male scientists had been interviewed on Newsnight as well, which undermined the columnist’s claim that Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Hiranya Peiris had been specifically selected. The suggestion that the BICEP2 team were all white and male was a basic error of fact and one which appropriate checks could have helped to prevent. There had been a clear failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and a corresponding breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Code.

The newspaper took a number of measures to address the situation: the managing editor wrote to both Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris; a letter criticising the columnist’s argument was published the following day; its columnist later explicitly noted both scientists expertise, and competence to comment on the study; and, a correction was published promptly in the newspaper Corrections & clarifications column which acknowledged that the BICEP2 study was “conducted by a diverse team of astronomers from around the world”, and which “apologis[ed] for any suggestion to the contrary”. The latter measure was sufficient to meet the newspaper’s obligation under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code, to correct significantly misleading information.

The columnist’s suggestion that Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris were specifically selected for the Newsnight programme because of “political correctness” was clearly presented as his own comment and conjecture which, under Clause 1 (iii) and the principle of freedom of expression, he was entitled to share with readers. There was, therefore, no breach of the Code in publishing that suggestion. However, the subsequent correction of the factual inaccuracy regarding the BICEP2 team and the acknowledgment of both experts’ expertise will have allowed readers to assess the suggestion in a new light.

Under Clause 12 (Discrimination) (ii) of the Code, “details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”. The complainant’s concerns under this Clause were twofold; he believed that the references to the gender and ethnic background of both Dr Aderin-Pocock and Dr Peiris, and the BICEP2 team members, were irrelevant in a column about a scientific study. While the terms of Clause 12 (ii) do not cover irrelevant references to gender, the Commission would need to have received a complaint from a member, or members of the BICEP2 team, or Dr Aderin-Pocock or Dr Peiris in order to consider the complaint about under this Clause. In the absence of any such complaints, the Commission could not comment further.

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Exposure!

I like to think that, 18 months (and three papers) into my PhD, I’ve learned a lot about how science works. The naive beliefs of my undergrad days have all but vanished, replaced with (presumably) slightly less naive ones. Science is messier than I thought, less “clean”. Things go wrong, mistakes are made, guesswork reigns, and absolute rigour is never attained. People, personalities and politics play a big role; egos and reputations are involved, and disagreements are common. Motivations are varied; not everyone is committed to some uniform ideal of “discovery” or “openness”. Science is a career like any other; success is not guaranteed, hard choices and sacrifices must be made, and some form of work/life balance attained. (By now, you might be thinking that I’ve been reading a little too much of PhD Comics, or that my supervisor has had the “getting a job” talk with me. Correcto.)

But while it’s easy to find expositions on the hidden flaws of academia all over the web, there have been plenty of pleasant aspects that I wasn’t expecting either. One thing that I’ve been getting a kick out of recently is exposure, or “recognition”, of my work. Although still decidedly a newcomer to the rarefied cosmological subfields in which I work, I’ve now put out enough papers and shown my face at enough conferences that some people know who I am and what I’ve been doing. So, when a scrap of evidence that someone cares about my work appears, it’s a great feeling. The novelty will wear off, I’m sure, and it’s hardly the reason I get up in the morning, but it is nice.

Some of the exposure that I’m talking about could be reasonably well expected, since my seniors in the department talk about it often enough. Citations? Check. Emails from other researchers? Yep. Cranks emailing me? Of course. But a couple of recent events were particularly pleasant, and wholly unexpected.

The first was having our kSZ+voids paper mentioned in Ellis, Maartens and MacCallum’s new textbook on relativistic cosmology (which looks excellent, by the way). Although I don’t believe that textbooks have any special claim to authority over other media, the fact that the paper is mentioned in one amplifies the feeling of having contributed something to the state of human knowledge, however minor. Maybe it’s my perception of books as being relatively permanent entities that does it? I should carve the damn thing in stone if that’s the case.

The second was being approached by a journalist and interviewed, by email, about some of my research. Some of this appears in a story about alternatives to dark energy on the PBS NOVA physics blog. That was an interesting experience too, and I like the idea that members of the general public will gain some insight into what I’m working on. Of course, I was exposed to some of the harsh realities of science/media interaction in the process – the story paints a very simplified picture of a complicated area of study, fails to credit lots of people who made important contributions, etc. (although for what it’s worth, I think the author, Charles, did a pretty good job). But it was still a good feeling to see my stuff mentioned in print (as it were).

I don’t anticipate changing my stance of “doing science because it’s interesting” and becoming a publicity whore off the back of these, but they put a smile on my face nevertheless.