Science Media Days in Madrid: Interview with Patricia Fernández de Lis

Interview with Patricia Fernández de Lis, multi award winning science and technology journalist and Chief-Editor of Materia, El País’ science section.

Based on your long experience, what makes a good science journalist?

Patricia Fernández de LisPatricia Fernández de Lis: Although I cannot say that there is a fixed recipe, there are some general characteristics of good journalists. First, and this is independent of the journalistic field, is being curiosity-driven. Second, even if I think that science journalists do not need to be scientists or experts in the field, they need to be able to ask the right questions to the right people. Third, common sense. They need to understand that if something sounds too good to be true, it is because it is probably not, that information needs to be verified and that not everything in print, even in peer-reviewed journals, is to be taken as the word of God.

Do you need to understand science in order to be interested in it?

Patricia Fernández de Lis: I do not think so. Actually, this is what we experienced during the pandemic. Over these couple of years, complex topics like how vaccines work or Covid’s mode of action, have been read by many. In fact, the most read article in the whole history of the newspaper El País has been a science article related to aerosol formation.

How can we make science more approachable/interesting?

Patricia Fernández de Lis: This is a very difficult question that raises lots of debate but for which there is no defined answer. There are simply too many factors involved: the type of audience, the type of content…However, going back to common sense, being empathic and trying to step into the shoes of a potential lay reader may help reaching and capturing your audience.

Has there been a before and after Covid-19 in public interest for science?

Patricia Fernández de Lis: The pandemic has certainly increased public interest for science and health news. We have been noticing this since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, even though our section always had a strong reader base and a good following ratio on social media.

Clickbait headlines, misinterpretation of statistical results, biased reporting, false hope (Alzheimer’s has been cured at least a million times in the last 20 years according to certain news reports) are some of the biggest sins of science journalism. Is there a cure to bad journalism?

Patricia Fernández de Lis: I believe the public are the only ones 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.

The influence of traditional journalism seems to be waning in favor of easy-to-consume formats on social media and misinformation spreads easily. How can journalism influence social media for the better?

Patricia Fernández de Lis: Despite the presence of various services aiming towards dispelling it, misinformation is a big problem, as we have observed during the pandemic. However, I do not think it is journalism’s job to quiet social media ‘noise’. First, because it would take so much time and energy that it would not allow us doing our jobs; second, because 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.

Which role can the European Science-Media Hub (ESMH) play in science journalism and communication in Spain? How can we collaborate?

Patricia Fernández de Lis: Science journalism in Spain has a good reputation and could be said to be ‘in good shape’. However, the ESMH could help Spanish science reporting by facilitating access to European experts and/or research centers, or by providing information on grant systems and rules governing science in other European countries.

On the other hand, we could get visibility if the ESMH would produce a newsletter or news bulletin with the best European science news or a database including vetted science channels in each European partner.

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