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Beyond the headlines: Science reportage in an era of misinformation

One in every five Filipino adults use Facebook to access and consume news, a Social Weather Stations survey conducted in 2019 revealed. While television remains the chief source of news for about 60 percent of Filipinos, Facebook places second, surpassing radio stations and newspapers. By racking up likes and shares, news on Facebook and other social media platforms can quickly spread across a large audience in a short amount of time. However, this convenience brought by social media has amplified the long-standing problems of disinformation and misinformation. 

These continue to cause confusion and misunderstanding, especially with recent events such as the spread of COVID-19. The spread of wrong information at this critical time, intended or not, can be dangerous as people depend on the accuracy of news to keep them safe and informed amid the current crisis. Robust Science Communication is now more than ever necessary in conveying scientific truths to increase public awareness on scientific issues relevant to their daily lives and the policies that shape them.

Bait, as they call it

With the current pandemic and the nearing rainy season, prevalent topics related to COVID-19, viral diseases, and Health as a whole have made headlines across the world. Due to their prominence, the media’s reportage and coverage on the foregoing topics are very susceptible to misinterpretation. Clickbait posts are popular, for example, with headlines or featured photos framed to grab readers’ attention but not necessarily aligning to the article’s actual contents. Questionable sources also impact the credibility of the message, potentially leading to vague or outright false ideas. 

In an interview with The LaSallian, Shaira Panela, a freelance science writer for several publications such as Rappler, presents an article from Inquirer Lifestyle containing “dubious” sources used to support controversial claims, which were masked behind citing a yet to be peer-reviewed study in its title, Research paper by Chinese scientists shows COVID-19 came from Wuhan biolab. However, the news article focused more on the opinion of American China expert Steven Mosher on the Chinese government instead of the details and contents of referenced research paper—thus, exhibiting discrepancy between headline and content. Panela claims that the article “sows fear” and is “written with malice”. The above example is a case of disinformation—spreading false information with a motive to deceive.

Scientists and journalists have their own roles to play in furthering reportage on Science and fighting misinformation, with Panela emphasizing that there should be “more open communication” between scientists and journalists. Yet even as these professionals do their job, readers also have their own share of responsibility to be well-informed and critical when reading news. Readers must not take articles at face value, but aim to dive deeper into the claims of a story. 

In order to avoid believing misleading articles, Panela explains that it is good practice to look for certain indicators in the form of logical fallacies, blanket statements, and opinions from non-experts. Conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic include the popular claim that 5G technology had caused COVID-19. One of the first to peddle the conspiracy was a Belgian newspaper that interviewed a medical doctor who linked 5G to the virus. The interviewed physician, however, was not expert on 5G nor did he specialize in Epidemiology—the study of how diseases spread—and even went as far to say that he had not fact-checked his statements. Even with the hallmarks of misinformation, the conspiracy exploded into popularity, to which Panela stresses, “Spotting [fallacies] takes a lot of practice.”

Accuracy or readability?

Failure to comprehend complex topics in highly technical fields often leads to misinterpretation. Inaccuracies in discussing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)-related topics arise from common pitfalls including “the writer’s limited understanding of the concepts [being discussed], the goal to get more engagements, and a desire to [publish] first—which may lead to wrong appreciation of facts and carelessness,” according to Panela.

Even so, with sufficient comprehension of STEM topics, conveying ideas in a manner digestible to non-expert readers while maintaining data integrity is just as essential. 

“Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with the ‘beauty’ of the study that we forget how important it is to communicate the uncertainties and the risks clearly,” Panela says, emphasizing the need to “strike a balance” when communicating exciting advancements and findings that need further investigation.

As an example, a writer may want to express the hopeful prospect of a new medication or vaccine for a certain ailment, but it is imperative to also note the technicalities such as the current stage of development for the drug—the in vitro stage wherein testing is still done in a laboratory or the clinical trial phase with human participants. Such information should be clearly explained and defined so that readers would not be misled to think that a cure has been found when testing has not yet been completed.

Though a writer needs to take these factors into account to present an accurate and readable article, the process of communicating Science is not solely the writers’ burden. There is also a need for critical thinking from readers, as Panela states, “Critical thinking is not an easily learned skill early on. The [results] of which [are] people believing [in] heresays, forwarding scaremongering statements, [and accepting] pseudoscience.” 

This can also be aggravated by “echo chambers” on social media, Panela describes, with people’s tendency to only follow and engage with posts that match their interests, deriving a sense of validation from seeing information that abides by their beliefs. In relation to this, she notes, “Those who need to know about Science may not be inclined to read about them, and not be reached by [the published stories].”

As the pandemic storms the nation and the world, Panela believes that journalists and scientists are doing their best in championing Science Communication, despite limitations in resources and mobility hampering their ability to cover on the ground, conduct extensive research, and seek interviewees. In order to communicate Science better to the non-scientific community, Panela stresses the importance of practicing due diligence and keeping in mind that the responsibility of the journalist is to deliver “truthful and comprehensive reporting” to the public. “It’s not so much [as] reinventing the wheel, but more importantly, sticking to the journalistic values that we learned either in school or by practice,” she attests.

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