Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Science journalists find experts, deal with new developments intensively, do fact-checking, analyse data and communicate knowledge to the public. All of this has been important in the past weeks and may lead to a difference in the future.

Juliane Meißner

We are all experiencing massive changes in our daily lives. We have questions, we are feeling unsure about our health and about our future. With the outbreak of Covid-19, and the lockdowns and strict rules that will be part of our lives for the next weeks, we started asking questions and expect answers from trustworthy experts. We also expect that these answers should be reliable, based on evidence, transparent, honest, accessible for a non-professional and will help us to understand what’s going on. This is quite a lot – and a big task for science communication, especially journalism, and scientists.

Since the outbreak started, scientists have been in the media spotlight as rarely before. They are asked for interviews, they are invited to talk shows and they take part in press conferences together with politicians. It seems clear what society expects from experts: that they share their specific knowledge with the public. And what about science journalists? They are expected to contribute to the media debate, offer help and guidelines for daily life, be ahead with new information, act and publish responsibly (for example, not report on every single so-called sensation) and fulfill their role as an expert in their field. But science journalists are also challenged by this new situation: They have been dealing with the topic of Corona-19 for several weeks; the usual model is one publication for one topic and it is some time until the topic will be discussed again. This means that it is necessary to find new aspects to Covid-19 to report about. Also, research about the virus has just started. This lack of new knowledge puts pressure on science journalists because the only topic to cover is Covid-19 but reliable information about the virus is rare and a lot of information that isn’t reliable gets published on other channels. So they have to sort important and relevant things out. Despite some very challenging aspects in this Corona crisis, this situation is a great opportunity for scientists to highlight their role in society and to build bridges between them and non-professionals. Also, the current situation shows the importance of science communication and especially science journalism for the public. 

Spot-on science journalism

This global pandemic demands science journalists. In the past weeks it has become obvious that journalists who are specialised in covering scientific topics are absolutely essential. It is important to have journalists who are able to find experts in specific research fields, trace developments, put them into context, explain data and charts, check facts, challenge statements, translate specific language, and package all their information into a media contribution. 

But not every media outlet has a science desk, or, if they do have one just a few science journalists may work there. Newspapers in particular have been struggling financially for years. Many journalists lost their jobs, and media departments were dissolved. But now we see how important it is to have experienced science journalists, when it comes to evaluating sources, finding reliable experts in the right field or knowing the difference between a paper and a pre-paper. Publications in scientific magazines or evaluations from experts are helpful for journalists. For example, experts may help to give an overview of results from the newest publications which are relevant, or recommend experts from other fields who could answer certain questions. 

As rare as science journalists seem to be, so are space and airtime for scientific topics in non-pandemic times. Usually, editorial staff discusses topics from various fields and decide whether they will report on them or not. One question is always in the centre in these discussions: Why is a story important? This means that usually, science has to compete with politics, sports and Hollywood. During the Corona crisis, this question has answered itself. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been almost no other topic in the media. The virus and all related scientific evaluations remain in the spotlight. It‘s not only about epidemiology, virology and medicine, as it was at the beginning of the outbreak when information about the virus, its spread and questions of protecting oneself and others were at the centre of attention. These aspects are still important, but are now being supplemented by questions of economy, political science, law, philosophy, sociology, psychology and gender studies. Questions like ”How will a lockdown affect our economy?“, “How do I stay mentally healthy in this crisis?“ and “How strongly can civil rights be restricted during a crisis?“ arise.

All the knowledge that is available about pandemics and their effects on health and society provide answers and orientation. This knowledge helps citizens to understand the situation better and enables politicians to make decisions. Knowledge and experience from other countries, decades, fields and also new research findings help to sort things out. Media provide a platform and scientists have the opportunity to communicate with the public, explain their research and evaluate things that are happening. 

Scientists in the spotlight

COVID-19 has made one aspect of science communication even clearer than it was before: the importance of scientists communicating their work and their findings to society. In times of rising populism and the increasing popularity of conspiracy theories, evidence-based facts, their context and evaluation are indispensable. There are many ways for scientists to approach the public: through media contributions, social media, YouTube videos or science communication formats such as science slams or panels. However, it is necessary that when scientists talk about their work, they answer questions and are transparent about what science and research can do and what it cannot. Particularly when it comes to the last point, it is important to explain the limits of science. In difficult times the public tends to have certain expectations of what science is supposed to do and accomplish, and this can easily lead to misunderstandings or disappointment. 

Science journalists can explain the work of scientists, in this way it becomes clearer to the public how research works, and how the understanding of research could be improved. This may lead to a larger audience than scientists were able to reach before: if audiences are able to experience how science answers questions in their daily life, they are able to understand what is going on.

During this crisis it is not only scientists and experts who are in the public spotlight but also their work in progress. Questions such as “which research methods are suitable and why?” or “what information is missing in order to develop a vaccination?” become part of the story. These are parts that often have no space in daily reporting. Maybe this contributes to the general impression that the public has that research findings happen suddenly and quickly. The scientific process of trial and error and years of research that lie behind a study are often not thematised. But now this process is visible and could help non-professionals better understand how knowledge is created. For example, the question about valid tests was discussed internationally, as were the next steps for the development of a vaccine. 

Another aspect of scientific work has become more visible: the fact that research findings are preliminary. A scientist once gave me a perfect metaphor for this, by explaining that science is like a puzzle. With research findings, scientists add a little piece to the whole picture, and even if researchers don‘t know if the missing piece is dark blue or light blue, they know it‘s not red or green. New results can come up and they can strengthen, revise or specify results. German virologist Christian Drosten, for example, has made this clear in his statements. He has been transparents about the preliminary state of his evaluations and may change. At the same time, research results are always discussed and conclusions from different experts can be different – this is nothing special for scientists but for non-professionals it can be a new way of thinking about science.

Conclusion

The past weeks have been exceptional – and have offered new possibilities and insights. When Corona started to spread, we were all at the same starting point: Not many of us had experienced a situation like this before. It is hard to imagine what a society would do without facts, without people who can explain them and with no way to get information. So it became very clear what role science communicators and scientists have for society. Experts from various fields are doing research to find answers to our questions. They communicate and discuss their work and their prognosis. They help by finding orientation and clarifying the context – based on facts. Science journalists find experts, deal with new developments intensively, do fact-checking, analyse data and communicate knowledge to the public. Their work in the past weeks has made a significant contribution to informing the public. All of this has been important in the past weeks and may lead to a difference in the future. Perhaps this is the first step to fostering science journalism and lowering barriers of communication between scientists and a broader audience.