…journalists’ sources of knowledge are what they see, what they read and what they are told. We have no special channels. The debate over how to publish these two papers illustrates what happens when two of these sources are missing. We had no events to observe and as long as the papers remained secret we could not read them. What we were left with is what people had told us.
In my experience, scientists are more capable of giving a disinterested version of events than, say, politicians. They are willing to present both sides more or less fairly. They tend to have a respect for facts, wherever they lead, which cannot be said of lots of people who make up the voices on the news. But their general goodwill can’t make up for the fact that what they told reporters about the mutant-flu controversy was woefully inadequate. The news stories that appeared were based on second- and third-hand versions of the facts. There was no evidence base for reporters to consult. And without numbers and details — the evidence base for science reporting — you get qualitative statements and metaphors. “Doomsday virus”, for example.
Many reporters, it should be noted, are enthusiastic participants in overstating the case. Some learn early to make the most extreme assertions supportable by the facts even if the impression left by their story is not what one would get after a complete survey of the facts. Editors sometimes goad reporters in that direction, but generally that’s not necessary.
It may turn out that in some circumstances, censorship is the responsible act because the facts are too dangerous to provide to the readers. But when that happens, I think you can count on getting an extreme account in the press of what is being kept secret.
Secrecy breeds paranoia. It makes people question motives. I haven’t read any paranoid explanations of why this research was kept secret. But if this starts to become a habit with dual-use research, I am sure they will emerge…