By Vitalba Crivello

More than one year into the pandemic, communicating sound science to the public remains a big challenge for media makers. At times when debating science in the public sphere implies acknowledging some uncertainty, science journalists and science communicators are struggling with matching the growing demand for evidence, factual and knowledge-based information. How can we put lessons learned into practice?

Some media experts debated this topic on 16 June 2021 at a session of the ‘Science & the media’ track of the WHO first global conference on communicating science during health emergencies organised and moderated by the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH).

Contributing to the detection, prevention and response to dis- and misinformation is one of the top priorities of the World Health Organization (WHO). It convened representatives of the multidisciplinary science communication community to reflect upon challenges and good practices in health science communication and promote innovative, effective solutions for the future.

The WHO event, running from 7 to 25 June 2021, was opened by a public panel discussion about the challenges of communicating science during a pandemic. The conference also featured three ‘closed’ thematic tracks and a wrap-up public session. Each track/scope gathered a limited number of invited participants – representatives from research, media, policy and health.

Science at the forefront in the media

Despite the worrying spread of false claims about Covid‑19 and the ‘Infodemic’ challenge, the health crisis shows that at critical times, people increasingly return to scientific evidence and rediscover that expertise matters. It is therefore essential to provide reliable information from trustworthy sources, making sure that media makers work hand in hand with scientists and policy makers to promote trust in science.

Working with reporters is especially important for the ESMH, and our network of science journalists in different countries represents a precious means helping us to keep an eye on different experiences of reporting during the pandemic. That is why we invited three science journalists from different EU countries (Vera Novais, Adeline Marcos and Kai Kupferschmidt) to join the debate organised by the ESMH on 16 June 2021, moderated by Vitalba Crivello.

According to Vera Novais (journalist at Observador and free lance science journalist), a very first positive development in Portugal was that every journalist in the health newsroom became a science journalist, as everybody had to report on the pandemic: “This changed the way news media worked: journalists had to cover pandemic-related issues in the context of their different areas of specialisation, bringing up new ways of analysing the news and the public crisis. Some mistakes were still made, but most of the time we all tried to be super rigorous, even those who do not normally report on science and health. People felt a duty to cover the corona crisis ‘well’.”

What has been challenging, on the other hand, is the presence of new-born ’experts‘ everywhere: as the demand for information sources on the health crisis was high, and ‘opinion-makers’ found room to make their voice heard in several places, making it difficult to fact-check them and estimate their real expertise.

Adeline Marcos (Science journalist at SINC, Spain): “Luckily, in Spain there was already a group of scientists working on coronaviruses – we talked to them from the beginning, and distinguished between the ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’ in selected topics. New experts were indeed another challenge, as this was confusing for the public. It was the reporters’ responsibility to select them properly. The good news is that we have experienced a clear increase in the public demand for quality information on science.”

Vera Novais added: “The real experts were super-busy – dealing concretely with the pandemic – and they were in general less available to speak to the media, creating room for others to fill the resultant gap. That has since changed a little bit, and public health experts have acknowledged the importance of being in the forefront and talking to the media, filling the gaps with better quality information demanded by the public.”

Actually, when it comes to the quality of the scientific information, not much had changed: before the pandemic journalists already had to select the right science information and navigate through a huge amount of research papers to be able to write the news. The biggest new element brought in by the health crisis however was the volume of, often uncertain, information.

“It has been hard to deal with all the pre-prints appearing since the beginning of the pandemic. Journalists have been trying to do the work of peer reviewers – usually scientists: checking publications at their early stage to be sure that they were accurate and reliable, to report on”, Adeline Marcos said.

A rapidly changing information ecosystem

Kai Kupferschmidt (Correspondent at Science Magazine): “We need to look at the pandemic as a whole and its lessons for science journalism. We have to keep in mind the context of the current information ecosystem, changing at incredibly rapid pace, with many service providers – governments, science journalists, science institutions, communication people – and anyone communicating in some way about the pandemic, and in a very broad term. In science journalism, many experts may not have sounded the alarm early enough or loudly enough, and Covid-19 was not put in the right perspective early on. The debates about communication in public health emergencies should include some reflection on information – where and how sound the alarm, and how to be clear in warnings.”

“Learning the right lessons from the pandemic means looking at the ecosystem, then start drawing up conclusions and plans”, he continued. “One main challenge in the ecosystem is that the business model has broken down and there are fewer resources available. Some news organisations are looking to ministries for funding – and we need to understand the dangers that brings, especially in light of the lessons of this pandemic.”

According to Kupferschmidt, polarisation, fragmentation of the media landscape, money issues – all these are leading us to a change in the ecosystem that makes it harder and harder to address the real issues: “The biggest question is how to reach people when they’re not looking for information. How do we make people interested in our reporting on the important things?”

On a more positive note: where journalists worked well was in providing the public with information that some were trying to suppress – e.g. when the USA was failing to do any real accounting of cases. It were journalists who ensured the basic service of providing data on which to build reporting.

Tim Lougheed, Executive Director of the World Federation of Science Journalists, suggested that organisations that care about getting the correct messages across have an interest in getting journalists to sit in on proceedings: “Science journalists are plugged into issues like climate change, biodiversity; they see long-term trends that are not easily communicated. One practical mechanism for dealing with this is to embed journalists with experts to ensure reports that can have strong impact, that are easy to understand and accurate. This is required or failure will continue. Pandemics will come, ecosystems will suffer, policies will be made and we will continue to end up fighting the last war instead of the next one.”

It is also quite important to train journalists, said Rick Weiss, Director of the non-profit service for journalists and scientists SciLine: “There’s a constant acceleration of how quick journalists think they need to get news out. Speed trumps accuracy. As this pandemic fades, its lessons must not be allowed to fade with it. This is the time to bolster capabilities, train journalists to understand science and science thinking better, and train science to communicate better so we’re in a better position next time.”

Thinking critically

The fact that the current information ecosystem allows everybody to be a ‘communicator’ seems to embed the risk of a lack of critical thinking.

Ida Jooste – Global Health Advisor, Internews: “Applied use of critical thinking alone would help audiences and journalists pick out good information.”

Kai Kupferschmidt agreed: “We need to teach people to distrust themselves, have some introspection about their own biases. Critical thinking is crucially important as every individual is a broadcaster now.”

“Journalism hasn’t done a favour to the world by overemphasising opinion pieces that get lots of shares and clicks (false balance). We need to teach people how a journalist thinks. Journalism is not just broadcasting anymore – we’re all players in a big information ecosystem“ – Kupferschmidt added.

The outside world is another big challenge. What is the ‘general audience’? Whom are we writing for? This can be tricky to know. Journalists need to be closer to audiences in order to understand their wishes, expectations and (especially) fears.

Vera Novais: “When we report, we have to accommodate people’s contexts, presenting news so it can be absorbed, without making people feel like they’re being attacked. We tend to forget that when we are engaged in reporting, we are writing about people, for people. We risk becoming too engaged in the science itself. There is a need for more empathy. If science is more empathic and relatable, people will read more about it, instead of feeling like it’s too distant to understand.”

‘We also need to keep in mind that not everybody in the audience is online. Not everybody in the audience has even had a primary school education. Telling stories about complex subjects with very little education and an incomplete understanding of health is very difficult. Some broad lessons are applicable to everybody, but we also need some very context-specific work that cannot be overlooked’ – Genevieve Hutchinson, Senior Advisor Health and Communication, BBC Media Action, said.

“We are all each other’s audience. Responding to news is a challenge because it moves so fast. Building in the understanding of the individual from a psychological perspective, and understanding of people’s contexts, is crucial” – she concluded.

This article originally appeared on the European Science-Media Hub on 1 July 2021.

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