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Risk and Bioethics: A European Perspective

EUSJA Newsletter | 24 November 2011

David Ropeik, Fabio Turone, Akin Jimoh and Wilson da Silva

by Daniela Ovadia

EUROPEAN SCIENCE journalism was represented at the 2011 World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha also by two panelists from Italy: Fabio Turone, who produced a panel on the communication of risk, and myself, in charge of a session on bioethics.

Moderated by Wilson da Silva, editor in chief of Cosmos, the most widely read science popularisation magazine in Australia, the panel on risk offered three very diverse points of view on the issue.

Nigeria’s Akin Jimoh, who is the anglophone coordinator for the SjCOOP mentoring program of the World Federation of Science Journalists, discussed about the many difficulties a reporter has to overcome when trying to involve the population of African countries in the debate on risk, difficulties summarised in the picture of two motorbike riders wearing ludicrous – but not uncommon – substitutes for the helmets mandated by the law.

The lively and entertaining contribution by former TV reporter David Ropeik, book author and instructor at Harvard, focused on the elements that contribute to make objective hazards more or less scary, which should be known and used with caution by media professionals: from trust to familiarity, from choice to uncertainty through the dualism between risk and benefit, natural and man-made and between catastrophic and chronic, and more. His extensive research on the perception of risk was recently summarised in the book “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”.

Finally Fabio Turone analysed the available medical literature on the quality of health and specifically risk reporting, to stress the importance of providing lifelong training for science journalists by journalists, specifically to practice and reinforce a critical approach. He presented the existing attempts at establishing a stronger and more effective alliance among scientific institutions, health policy makers and the media professionals in which the latter are considered “professional equals”.

Bioethics is more and more important in health reporting. It’s harder and harder for a science journalist to separate opinion from scientific evidence in topics such as end of life decisions or the  assessment of consciousness and coma. The panel in Doha was composed by journalists from the US – Joe Palca, science correspondent from NPR, and Jon Cohen, correspondent with Science who acted as moderator – the Canadian bioethicist Eric Racine, from McGill University in Montréal, and myself. Racine illustrated his research on media reporting in cases that have a strong bioethical angle, especially with regards with neurology and neuroscience. He discussed the media coverage of the Terry Schiavo case in American and British newspapers through the analysis of the language used to describe her medical history, the most common mistakes in reporting and the misunderstanding of the experts’ comments.

Daniela Ovadia, Eric Racine, Jon Cohen and Joe Palca

Joe Palca discussed the hypes and hopes of stem cell research in neurological diseases and raised the question of how to report such an important issue. Finally I summarized two important cases involving end-of-life decisions that were debated in Italy for many years: the case of Piergiorgio Welby (an ASL patient who asked to withdraw assisted ventilation) and the case of Eluana Englaro (a coma patient with many similarities with the Schiavo’s story). The speech benefited from the work by Gianna Milano, an Italian colleague who followed both cases for many years but could not attend the Doha conference.

The final discussion on the role of science journalism in ethical and scientific controversies sparked a debate about the difference between informing and teaching. The majority declared that the role of journalists is to inform and not to teach nor to judge the experts’ or the families’ position. An interesting part of the discussion involved colleagues from Islamic countries, where the bioethics debate is still in its infancy but is an emerging issue.


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