Misinformation is a new pandemic, one for which the only cure is knowledge. Informed audiences, media-savvy scientists, and high-quality journalism are key to counter misinformation.
These are the main takeaways from the debate on ‘Promoting trust in science to counter misinformation’, the third event of a series called Science-Media Days, which took place on 20 May. It was organised by the European Science-Media Hub – part of the European Parliament’s Panel for the future of Science and Technology (STOA), together with the European Parliament Liaison Office in Madrid. It was the first to be held on site since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Member of the STOA Panel Lina Gálvez Muñoz (S&D, Spain) opened the debate by highlighting the importance of high-quality science information.
Michele Catanzaro, science journalist and moderator of the debate, was of like mind: “Misinformation is damaging at two levels. First, when misinformation is taken as real information, that is, when it is believed. Second, and worse still, is its impact on trust, as it can lead to an extreme scepticism where all information is put in doubt”.
How to avoid this second effect was the focus of the debate. When speaking about trust, it is important to understand that, as Cary Funk, Director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center, explained, “public trust in science is dynamic”. Trust in science does not exist in a vacuum, it is impacted by politics, the economy, etc.
“The results of political interventions have a strong influence in trust, as found during the Covid-19 pandemic, where we could observe a correlation between the number of deaths and institutional trust,” Cary Funk said.
In addition, during the pandemic, scientific information often changed: what was valid today, was wrong/outdated the day after. This rapid evolution created confusion, negatively impacting public trust.
According to Pampa García Molina, “science should become accessible and useful for the public. For decades, science communication was strongly focused on results, but the pandemic has helped shift the focus to the actual scientific process. It is journalists’ responsibility to explain that changing facts are not a sign of failure, but a natural part of the scientific process.” – Read Pampa García Molina’s full interview
However, not only journalists are responsible for the way science is portrayed in the media, but scientists should also be actively involved in the process to avoid the surge of misinformation.
“Science communication is a dialogue between scientists and journalists. Science and politics go hand-in-hand, but science can sometimes be used against the public, which naturally generates distrust. That is why scientists need to be transparent about their motivation, conflicts of interest, etc. and why journalists should demand this transparency from the expert sources they interview,” explained Sonia Contera, Professor of Biological Physics at the University of Oxford and Senior Fellow at the Oxford Martin School and Green Templeton College.
In addition, to avoid the so-called ‘expert crisis’, scientists should avoid speaking about topics on which they are not experts. “The recently launched ScienceMediaCentre.es aims to counteract the effects of this expert-crisis,” Pampa García Molina said.
More trust in science than in media
The increasing public interest in science is accompanied by higher trust in science than in media. This is particularly true for Spain, as shown in the last survey on social perception of science and technology. However, to create a more engaged and discerning audience, not only science literacy but also media literacy – the ability to analyse media messages – is required.
“A usually forgotten issue is media literacy. People, including researchers themselves, need to understand the editorial policies of media, its need for subscriptions and advertising, the difference between journalistic formats (editorial, news…); the existence of information bias and conflict of interest, etc. Actually, this is a key learning because it is applicable to every aspect of life, from economy to politics to health…” – Pampa García Molina, Editor in chief Agencia SINC and Director of the Science Media Centre Spain.
Misinformation should ideally be stopped at inception, before it can spread.
However, this is no menial task, as Patricia Fernández de Lis, Director at Materia, the science section of El País, puts it: “I do not think it is journalism’s job to quiet social media ‘noise’ and misinformation. First, because it would take so much time and energy that it would not allow us doing our jobs; second, I am not even sure that it would be effective. I believe our biggest contribution is also the simplest: to do our job as best as we can.” – Read Patricia Fernández de Lis’ full interview
According to her, it seems more appropriate to combat misinformation with high-quality information.
However, not only scientists and journalists are responsible for the misinformation pandemic, the public can and should play a role in keeping misinformation in check.
“I believe the public is the only one who can change this. The competition for clicks that helped many traditional newspapers survive the digital transition has created an ecosystem of catchy headlines with little substance. To avoid further feeding this beast, people need to understand that quality information has a price, and consider subscribing to a high-quality information provider, much alike they do with music or video streaming services.” – Patricia Fernández de Lis, Director at Materia, the science section of El País