In order to understand science reporting, we need to first understand how science operates. Science is slow. Scientific studies can take years to complete and even when they are complete, the results will need to be analyzed, evaluated and even retested to ensure validity. Conversely, demand for news today requires that reporting be done at a rapid pace, particularly in a time of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that reporters are under additional pressure to provide you with, often complex, information as quickly as possible. Sometimes this means that scientific information that is still in the process of being verified is reported and shared with the public. In these cases, reporters will often note that the study is ongoing or that the information presented is not yet generalizable. However, if we don’t understand what these words mean in the context of a scientific study, it may appear as though the reporter is providing you with verified scientific information and it may come as a surprise when that information changes. In some cases, it may contribute to a lack of trust or feelings of being misled. In more extreme cases, it may be perpetuated as misinformation.
Understanding the pace in which new scientific knowledge is gained, and the basics of both the scientific process and the journalistic process can better equip us to more fully and responsibly benefit from science reporting. However, it is also important to understand the limitations that exist when a journalist is pressed for time is required to translate meaningful scientific information to a mass audience who may or may not have a basic understanding of the scientific concepts discussed.
Journalists must first research and understand the science they are reporting. This takes time. Some journalists are specifically trained to report on topics of science. Others, particularly in times of crisis, are thrust into the “beat” with little prior experience. In addition to doing their own research and studying the subject matter, journalists must also identify the correct experts to interview. In this case, being able to identify what information an epidemiologist can provide that an expert in infectious disease cannot, is an important distinction to make. Asking the wrong scientist the wrong question can unintentionally result in incomplete information or skewed facts. Once journalists have gathered the information they need, they must then translate the information into easily digestible, usable knowledge, by a mass public. This is no easy task. As a populace, our understanding of basic scientific concepts varies a great deal. For some, understanding the way a virus functions, is a matter of simply recalling learned information. For others, the impact of a viral infection may be easily confused with that of a bacterial infection, causing us to ineffectively manage a viral infection. When it comes to understanding why one virus is more dangerous than another, an understanding of the transfer of the infection is necessary. This too requires substantive explanation. If a journalist does not effectively convey how COVID-19 jumps from person to person differently than a common flu, the public may be less likely to alter behavior to limit its spread. - Wafa Unus, PhD
Good science reporting from reputable sources may still result in misinformation. This might be due to challenges readers have when interpreting complex scientific concepts. Misinterpreting reporting and spreading it out of context, can contribute to the spread of misinformation. Readers often reduce complex concepts in an effort to make sense of the information but a lack of contextual understanding can alter the information. The intent of the sharer is not to misrepresent the information, but he or she may do so without even being aware.
Other sources, however, may not be motivated to conduct responsible reporting and instead intentionally perpetuate disinformation to create discord. Some individuals or organizations seek to manipulate scientific information to fit their narratives and for their own aims - not to provide the public with essential information.
It is important to be able to recognize when a credible source is misinterpreted, and when a source is intentionally spreading manipulated and decontextualized information. - Wafa Unus, PhD
Go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for valid information on COVID-19. For local information, you can also use the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's website. At this time, it is critical that you pay attention to where the information you find online comes from. Who is the author? Who do they work for? What is the intention of the author in providing you with the information? Listening to public health experts at the CDC and Department of Public Health will help you recognize when misinformation comes across your news feed. If you don't know what the experts are saying, how can you expect to recognize when someone shares misinformation with you? Don't take everything on social media at face value. A lot of people are panicking and when people are scared, they are more susceptible to believing and sharing misinformation.
-Renee Fratantonio, MLIS
Here are some indicators you should look for when evaluating if a source is conducting responsible reporting.
- Wafa Unus, PhD