2017-05-18

In "Hearing Voices", a cross-border and multidisciplinary team of journalists dug into the science of speech recognition and its use as forensic evidence. Based on more than 20 judicial cases where forensic phonetics evidence was used, the team, with amongst others Michele Catanzaro and Astrid Viciano, discovered that this evidence is all too often flawed, with far-reaching consequences. 

For example, there is the case of David Bain in New Zealand, who was convicted of killing his family, that he found dead upon returning home from work.  His conviction relied heavily upon a "translation" of his hyperventilating voice in a recording of the phone call to the emergency services, which was only later proven to be incorrect. Similarly, Oscar Sanchez was convicted to be a drug trafficker in Italy, when his voice was wrongfully concluded to match a phone recording of the actual criminal.  
 
The process of building the story for "Hearing Voices" involved a lot of digging into judicial cases, a lot of "invisible work" (e.g. summarizing the judicial case files) and the need for multi-lingual editing skills. It relied heavily on the scientific background and language skills of the team, but also on clear rules for the cross-border collaboration, including an upfront agreement for how to divide the earnings in the end. 
 
For Michele and Astrid, the story of "Hearing Voices", which definitely caused a stir in the linguistic scientific community, is also making a case for non-naive science journalism. What is the role of science journalism? Are we cheerleaders, trying to generate enthusiasm for the latest developments in a field? Or should we be more like movie critics: loving what we write about, but able to take a step back and look at it critically.
 
It has been shown that science and journalism have a strong influence on each other. Most science related journalism is triggered by press releases of the scientific journals, that don't necessarily contain all there is to know about a story. And when a development does get picked up in mainstream media, the corresponding scientific article appears to get referenced to more often. This opens up risks for "science propaganda" and biased journalism.
 
A clear example are health claims. Big companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi sponsor health organizations and may influence which health claims are repeated more often than others. If science journalists are 'the watchdogs of the scientific community', shouldn't we then maintain a more critical eye when we suddenly read everywhere that not sugar, but a lack of physical activity is to blame for overweight? 
 
As journalists, we should keep in mind that scientists are pressured from many sides to get big results. But on some topics, such as the impact of e-cigarettes on health, the only real conclusion that can be made, based on the complete body of evidence, is that the scientific community is very divided on the subject. And sometimes even a scientist just wants to be able to say: "we don't really know (yet)". 
 
Katrien Vanherck
 
 
 
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