The salmon study controversy. How to write a news release without answering the question


Fisheries minister Keith Ashfield and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans today issued a news release concerning the controversy over the muzzling of DFO scientist Kristi Miller and her genetic study of Fraser River salmon which suggests a virus may be responsible for the decline of the stock.  Although Miller published her study in the journal Science, she was not permitted to speak the media about it.

The DFO news release from this afternoon is a classic example of not answering the actual question while seeming to assure the public that the minister and department are doing their job. DFO also says it supports the department’s scientists, without mentioning that the DFO was originally willing to make Miller available to the media, it was Stephen Harper’s Privy Council Office that said she couldn’t.

You can read the full  news release. Response to Media Reports about Science at Fisheries and Oceans Canada

On Miller’s study the news release says:

 In fact, the research and report by Dr. Kristi Miller on Pacific salmon was not withheld from anyone; Dr. Miller’s report was published in a broadly circulated science magazine and remains widely available to the media and public through the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website, and as an exhibit through the Commission’s website.

(The Commission refers to the Cohen Commission on the decline of salmon stocks)

The publication of a scientific article in the journal Science is not at question.

What the Privy Council Office did was forbade a prominent scientist the opportunity to explain to the public in layman’s terms the significance of her findings.

Science journalism works like this. The major journals advise the media well ahead of time, under embargo, about the pending publication of major papers. The reason for this simple and supported by both the media and the scientific community. It takes time and effort to craft an accurate report of a scientific paper, whether reporting for a newspaper or the web. Creating an accurate and accessible television item on a scientific paper, a television item that also needs pictures and voice clips is both an art and science. Even in these days of cutbacks, the networks hunger for reporters and producers who can do it in under two minutes. If instead the media has to rush out a story on a scientific article on the day of publication, it is bound to be superficial and inaccurate. This was the process that was short circuited by the Privy Council Office when it, not DFO, muzzled Kristi Miller.

This is the question that the DFO news release ignores.

The news release then raises a smokescreen by saying:

Our scientists have also published hundreds of reports subscribed to by tens of thousands of people throughout Canada and the world. For example, this week, Fisheries scientist Dr. Kenneth Frank released a report about positive signs in the recovery of groundfish stocks off the coast of Nova Scotia. Dr. Frank’s research was published in Nature, the world’s most highly cited science journal, and he spoke to nearly a dozen interested members of the press on his report this week alone.

. While it is true, that the report on the rebound of groundfish stocks is receiving wide attention and as DFO says, Kenneth Frank was made available to the media, a cynical observer would be quick to point out that the Kenneth Frank story is good news for Canada and for the Harper government, while the Kristi Miller salmon virus could be bad news for both the country and the government.

So now it looks that the Privy Council Office is adopting a “good news” agenda. If it’s good, a government scientist can talk to the media, if it’s bad news, bury it.

 Finally the government relies in this case, on the “before the courts” excuse it used when the story of the salmon study first broke in Post Media News, referring to Justice Bruce Cohen’s commission of inquiry into the decline of the Pacific salmon stocks.

 Moreover, at Justice Cohen’s request, the government has provided almost 500,000 documents and many hours of testimony deemed relevant by Justice Cohen to his inquiry. Dr. Miller will also present her research findings at the Commission in the coming weeks along with several other scientists and officials.

Our government has been very clear that judicial inquiries are not conducted through the media. Evidence that may be relevant to Justice Cohen’s findings should be managed through the commission process.

What this means is that government may use the “before the courts” excuse in the future to muzzle any scientific debate on a controversial issue. In reality, of course, that simply means excluding the public and media from a debate on any subject that would likely be discussed openly at any scientific gathering or congress.

Of course, if the Harper government is in favour of something, then a “commission process” appears to be irrelevant. As has been widely reported, the Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, is ignoring the quasi-juidicial nature of the National Energy Board hearings into the Enbridge Northern Gateway project and the various LNG projects, all potentially using the port of Kitimat, by telling any reporter and any audience that the projects are in the “national interest” when finding the public interest is the mandate of the NEB.