“Great science journalism requires a methodology”
Interview with Luca De Biase, journalist & Innovation editor at Il Sole 24 Ore and editor in chief at Nova24. Lecturer on Media Ecology at University Sant’Anna, Pisa, and Stanford University.
There was a moment before the pandemic when we saw a surge of interest towards the climate crisis. But then, when Covid-19 hit, it disappeared entirely from the media. How do we bring it back on the public agenda?
Well, Covid-19 was sort of shock for everybody, and it was so crucial for the daily life that everybody was obsessed talking about that, understanding it. At first, this was also a significant moment for science journalism, for information about what science knows and what scientists can do to help in such an important issue. Of course, there was less talk about climate, even though in Lombardia, where I live (and where the Covid-19 crisis hit worst) the link between the very high impact of the pandemic and the fact that this particular region is one of the most polluted in Europe was found very early. The researchers from Harvard found a link between the extent of pollution and Covid-19 effects on human health. So this raised a little bit of attention again on climate change. Admittedly, it was less than what we had at the beginning of the year.
Covid-19 also brought us what has been defined as an “infodemic”. We had already experienced streams of misinformation, such as climate denialism. It seems as if we are quite unable to face facts and data, especially when dealing with complex issues. Journalists seem to be quite unable to investigate further and prefer to simply report, conventionally, on what is already circulating. Do you see any common trends in the way we deal with these kinds of topics?
I sort of ‘don’t care very much’ about journalists or newspapers. I care very much about journalism. I believe that journalism is a sort of discipline with a methodology. It’s the methodology that defines it: to be accurate, correct, independent from sources and so on. To me, this is like a simple version of the scientific methodology. Scientific methodology is more prominent, epistemologically defined and described. Journalism is for craftsmen, for people that do things. But it is not so distant.
We search for information that can be explained, verified from others, shared in a transparent way that everybody understands. On the other hand, when we choose to give priority to the business model of journals or of journalists, we sort of forget the methodology. We then put up with a way that gets us some attention, money, popularity… that kind of stuff. In a world in which newspapers are only a small part of the media ecology, that is rich with information, with people that do and read things, that retweet and discuss according to their own goals, everything becomes much more complicated. And we tend to lose our focus on our methodology, on our role, on what we should do. At the same time, I need to say that science is not a religion, and it is also linked to some business models. Scientists, too, look for their own popularity and there is not really a substantial difference in terms of risk of losing the road.
When the pandemic started, we had the feeling that something was changing in terms of infodemic, fake news and banality. Everybody was looking for more reliable information. People wanted to understand. So the scientific component gained some traction for some time because there was a real need for knowledge.
Once the situation was a little bit clearer, the media started again functioning as they usually do: looking for attention, which you can get with any kind of content. So the risk is to have an ecology that is polluted, complicated, banal. We have to keep our role, to maintain the methodology which often can be less popular but, in my view, it is the right way to bet on the future. We already witnessed what happens with confusion, with a business model based only on advertising and attention. Now we are creating new platforms and new ways to do our job. I guess it can be a good bet for the future even in terms of economy.
Where do we go from now on? Can we find an appropriate language and narrative to enhance public attention on both the climate crisis and the pandemic?
Well, I am sure that the climate issue will last much longer, and it will be one of the big engines of change for the next decades. We will learn to deal with pandemics more easily, I guess. Surely, it is complicated, hard, expensive, but we know what to do, and it is clear how to go forward.
On climate change, we also know what to do, but nobody controls the whole thing. We should change everything, and it is super complicated and hard to achieve.
We also saw that news outlets understood climate change after the IPCC chose this new strategy of getting together many scientists and have them speak with one voice, providing the media with simple but clear information. The message was no longer coming from some isolated scientist, but it was the whole IPCC talking together. This way, we understood that being objective did no longer mean to put denialists and scientists supporting the idea of climate change face-to-face. The two opinions stopped to be considered of the same importance.
We learned that we could be objective reporting what was published by the IPCC since that was representing 99% of the scientific community against only a few denialists. Until then, objectivity in journalism was always interpreted as confronting what was considered two opposite truths.
We can play a more prominent role if we are proactive in finding the right way to inform.
It is a very particular moment in history: we are facing a global environmental crisis and a global health one. Do you think there is room for new opportunities in journalism as well as for society? Could we look into our future differently, for instance focusing on innovation not so much as a force driving production but more as a new attitude towards social and cultural development?
Yeah, well, that is fascinating! Yes, I think, yes.
We could say that journalism is not only fighting for itself but also fighting for a better society which is exactly the “why” of journalism for everybody that starts this profession. But there are different scenarios, and we need to recognise the complexity to get into the good scenarios and not into the bad ones.
There are two variables for describing this. One variable is about the way a society can innovate. It has to do with how much it invests in science and in technology, how it creates an infrastructure enabling people to start experimenting with ideas, how it goes about financing them and so on. In this case, you have an innovative society.
The other variable is when you have a society with a specific direction. You know where you want to go, and you are aware of the facts that some choices will help everybody while others will only help one part of society. You can have a society in which the direction is to help and support everybody and another one where the direction is providing only one part of the community with advantages and benefits.
The combination of these two variables creates four scenarios: the first one where there is a lot of innovation and a very strong direction; the second one with a good direction but not innovation; the third one with a lot of innovation but not direction; and the fourth one, with no innovation neither direction.
This last one is fascism. The third one, is like a sort of big Silicon Valley, where finance and technology work very well together with great results but there is no direction.
On the contrary, in the second scenario, there is a technocracy that knows how to deal with things: there is no debt, nor public debt, nothing that creates problems with inflation, stability for money, etc.
Finally, there is progress, in which we know we need to experiment, we need to change the views, we have to define the direction while we transform society. So progress is where there are innovation and direction, and they go down the same path, applying values of both. In this last scenario, we recognise what is required to help everybody. We are aware that to innovate, we need to experiment. We don’t know what is right, we need to look for possibilities. To me, progress is a place in which a proper scientific culture is recognised.
Genuine scientific culture is based on the idea that we don’t know the truth. But we know how to verify and understand what theories need to go in the garbage and which ones are good to use. Nobody knows everything, but we have a methodology to go ahead.
And that also applies to the economy. We start looking for technologies to fulfil different applications. But we don’t let this kind of enabling infrastructure go by itself: we discuss consequences of what happens with clear goals in mind. We consider good what helps all the stakeholders, and bad what helps only some of them.
We can do this, we actually did this for long periods of past history. We also did the other things, we had fascism after the crisis. Scenarios are not there to tell us what will happen: there is no way to forecast it accurately! Economists say that economics is the science that studies why its forecasts didn’t happen. But again, we need these kinds of narratives to be aware of what we risk. We risk fascism, we risk technocracy, we risk an incredible innovative financial situation in which there is no direction, and we destroy anything by experimenting anything. And there is the possible path of progress. But it’s not that easy: we need to engage!