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Mike S. Schäfer: ‘Science is a matter of facts, not opinions’

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Mike Schäfer from the University of Zurich talks about why the pandemic has amplified science journalists’ fatigue, how accelerated science affects the quality of reporting, and how politics can ease the burden.

How has the pandemic affected science journalism?

Mike Schäfer: The pandemic has changed science journalism’s standing in society. We are now living at a time when science-related information on epidemiology, virology and healthcare, but also the pandemic’s social, psychological and economic implications have reached the forefront of public interest. Many people are currently interested in science. This has increased the demand for science communication and journalism. We are in the middle of an era that science philosophers Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz coined “post-normal science”: science is evolving so fast that the findings are not immediately clear; at the same time, our society and politics need solid scientific interpretation of these results, because as a society, we are under pressure to make quick decisions.

This enormous time pressure also applies to science itself.

Mike Schäfer: Indeed. We now know much more about the pandemic and its ramifications now than in the beginning. Robust knowledge is continually and gradually emerging. Researchers have produced tens of thousands of research papers in the past months. Many of their findings come with a certain degree of uncertainty. Some of these papers have not yet been peer-reviewed but published as preprints. They have not received the scientific community’s stamp of approval yet. That poses a specific challenge for science journalists: how can they deal with an increasing societal appetite for science when the science they have to deal with is only just emerging?

How did science journalists react to this accelerated scientific publishing machinery?

Mike Schäfer: The first studies on how science journalists lived through this pandemic are now in. What we see is that many science journalists are doing a great job, but also that the sped-up reporting has taken its toll on them. Many science journalists are exhausted. This is not entirely new. For many years, publishers’ business models have been eroding. We saw budget cuts, personnel layoffs and the downsizing of journalism in general. Specialist journalists like science journalists have been affected the hardest by this crisis. They have been working under strenuous conditions for a while now, with less staff, less resources, less time. The advent of social media has worsened this, because they have to cater to an increasing number of channels now. At the same time, science-related PR is expanding. This is not sustainable situation.

That sounds like a systemic crisis of science journalism.

Mike Schäfer: Yes. We need to come up with sustainable business models for science journalism that ensure editorial independence while not turning science journalists into researchers’ mouthpieces. In many countries, including Switzerland, such debates have started now. One recent Swiss study assesses how well science journalism has fared throughout the pandemic. It shows that on an individual level, the quality is good. On the other hand, this means science journalism’s crisis has systemic causes. Individual journalists or even single media houses cannot eradicate these shortcomings by simply finding more resources out of thin air.

Where could we get more resources from?

Mike Schäfer: In some countries, foundations fund science journalism because they recognise how important science journalism is. They are willing to participate in the funding while leaving science journalism editorially independent. There are also examples of journalism funded by scientific institutions, or of crowdfunded science journalism. Generally, it is time that we start a societal discussion about how important a role science journalism plays in our lives. Science delivers a lot of results at a really fast pace, and we do not have anyone else who provides orientation to the audience and helps them sort right from wrong. Who, if not science journalists, tells us whether to trust certain scientific findings?

Has the increased acceleration affected the quality of science reporting?

Mike Schäfer: Mistakes will always happen, especially when journalists are working in a 24/7 digital news environment. To reduce mistakes, we need more journalists, or other intermediaries between science and society. It takes time and a good understanding of a scientific discipline’s methodologies and traditions to sort good from less good science. Good science journalists have this expertise. They can contextualize a given study with the broader body of knowledge in that field, taking many studies into account. Currently, science coverage is too often reporting on single new studies, which at best leaves many audience members without the necessary context. At worst, it gives readers or viewers the feeling that science says A today but B tomorrow, reducing overall trust in science.

It almost sounds like a paradoxon, since the pandemic has seen a surge in investigative science reporting and fact-checking.

Mike Schäfer: In some aspects, it is. Resources aside, we also need to establish quality standards – not just for science journalists but also for the institutions who deliver information to science journalists. This includes institutional communicators, PR staff and even political institutions handling scientific information. We need to raise awareness that doing so comes with great societal responsibility. We also need to better support science journalists. If they tackle controversial issues, no matter whether it is about the pandemic, climate change or any other issue, we need to provide them with social, psychological and even legal support. The backlash they face when they openly weigh in on controversial issues can be ugly. We need to have their backs.

What models have particularly worked well during the pandemic?

Mike Schäfer: Science Media Centres do an excellent job. They initially emerged in the UK but have now branched out to other countries like Germany, whose science media center was founded five years ago. They collect information about science-related issues like the pandemic and deliver data, quotes and visualisations as ‘raw materials’ into newsrooms. They make all of that available free of charge to journalists who want to. That saves them a lot of time, since a significant portion of the reporting has already been done. Science media centers certainly cannot be the only model for science journalism, but they are a brilliant complementary model that provides a valuable service and solves part of the problem.

Where did science journalism not shine during the pandemic?

Mike Schäfer: False balance. The notion of balanced reporting in journalism comes from political reporting, where it makes perfect sense. For certain issues, journalists have to weigh different options based on values that people stand for. But if they report about science, they have to recognise that science is not a matter of opinion. Science is a matter of facts. If they report facts, is does not make sense to report in a balanced way. False balance has always been an issue in climate change reporting. If 99 per cent of the scientists agree on one view, it does not make sense to always represent the other side, because it stands for marginalised views and not the broad scientific consensus. That is why science journalists need a considerable level of expertise in the field they are covering.

What could science communication learn from reporting during the pandemic?

Mike Schäfer: There are many things to learn – for example that in times of crises, many people look for trustworthy information from science. And we learned a lot about strategies to fight dis- and misinformation. For example that many science communicators cannot fight fire with fire. Public institutions are legally obliged to stick to the facts. Science journalists have to adhere to professional standards. This is a particular challenge when fighting persuasive but wrongful messages. We also saw that deplatforming – i.e. banning the producers of disinformation like Alex Jones or Donald Trump from social media – can be part of the solution, but creates new challenges. Some of these voices have turned to dark platforms like Parlor, where they congregate a smaller but more hardened followership. We regularly run science barometer” surveys which help us gauge the views of the Swiss population on science. We found one small societal group we call the “sciencephiles” – a deeply science-interested and trusting audience. On the other end of the spectrum is a small group of disengaged and science-distant group that does not trust science and appeals to conspiracy theories. Their minds are set. And then there is a large, undecided middle group that has yet to make up its mind. The less misinformation this group encounters, the better decisions it will make. We need to focus on that group.

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