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Preparing for Crisis X: Can newsrooms and the scientific community overcome sceptical publics?

When divided society questions and distrusts journalistic and scientific methods, can next-level journalism promote and enhance credibility on future issues of concern?

Scientists warn of significant global challenges in the 21st century – from future pandemics to extreme climate events, food security risks to growing inequalities. Today, the International Science Council, led a panel session on “Preparing for Crisis X” at the World News Media Congress in Taipei. Recognizing the importance of responding to sceptical publics and building trustworthiness and credibility for both science and journalism, the panel explored the challenges and opportunities presented during the pandemic and for future crises to a global news media audience.

A recent report by Dr Courtney Radsch, Director of the Center for Journalism and Liberty at the Open Markets Institute and member of the ISC’s expert panel for its project, Public Value of Science, found that journalists in every country felt that pressure on media was building, under a backdrop of climate and geopolitical tensions, and that very few were prepared to respond effectively to future crises. 

Based on interviews and a survey of independent public interest news media and journalists in developing nations and analysis of legal regulatory frameworks, this report and an accompanying analytical tool found that journalism and science risk being held hostage to algorithms due to the “platformization” of news. As a result, these disciplines are vulnerable to social media content moderation systems that reward extremism, conspiracy theories, and disinformation, underscoring the urgency of developing healthy information ecosystems.

“Instead of focusing all our energy on how to fight disinformation, mitigate online harms, and combat digital extremism, we need to focus on creating a positive vision of what we want and how to get there”, said Radsch. 

“We must cultivate systems, institutions, and norms that enable quality and useful information to flourish and address the interplay between the technological infrastructure in which information and media systems are embedded”, she added. 

Over the past decade, the political and media landscape has grown increasingly fragmented and polarized, a fact underscored by the varied reactions of governments and populations to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joel Simon, Founding Director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and co-author of The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free described a never-before-seen systematic global crackdown of freedom of expression occurring in every country in the world as the pandemic spread. 

“The characteristics were different depending on national dynamics and political leanings. There were common frameworks between the scientific and journalism communities. Science had begun to indicate that political leaders would need to make difficult decisions for the economy and their own political destiny. We saw systematic crackdowns by authoritarian states where regimes of censorship grew as the pandemic spread. 

“In democratic nations, the pandemic revealed that some political leaders sought more to disrupt than suppress, often undermining experts and news media. These strategies proved highly effective, overwhelming information systems designed for analysis by overpowering the network of journalists and experts that seek truth”, said Simon.

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The congress heard that cultivating trust on both the consumption and production side of content for journalists was crucial in times of crisis.

Mia Malan, Editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Bhekisisa news organization added that consistency and transparency between policymakers, experts, and media professionals was key to building credibility and an ongoing mutual relationship of trust that went beyond the immediate crisis.

The lessons from the pandemic, which highlighted the need for journalists to find domain experts who could provide high-level expertise, could be used when providing coverage on the issues of climate change and biodiversity loss and living within sustainable planetary boundaries.

“Scientists had their own interpretations and our lesson was to empower media professionals on who could speak on what. For example, a GP speaking on vaccines, or an economist speaking on how a virus would travel was not necessarily empowering for our audience. It’s important to get the right experts.  I think about the AIDS crisis where South Africa had a president who denied the science for AIDS, so it frames the debate. We overcame that with grassroots partnerships with activists and media and scientists -we can do the same for the next crisis”, Malan said.

Mitali Mukherjee, Director of Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism, said that we must focus on the good that came out of the pandemic.

“There was a strong sense of international collaboration and knowledge sharing amongst international colleagues, which took us back to the core principles of journalism. Your job is to demand accountability no matter what country you live in. Not all newsrooms have a dedicated climate reporter. Journalists in the global South lack access to resources and data – so much of climate research is funded by the global North, and reporters suffer from a lack of information and a lack of context. These are the two challenges for climate and other crises that are on the horizon”, said Mukherjee. 

An antidote to this lack of information and context was provided by David Walmsley, Editor in Chief of Canada’s Globe and Mail. During the pandemic, the newspaper and the Royal Society of Canada built a partnership to provide coverage on the pandemic, which led to a future programme- Let’s talk science covering a broader range of issues from education to the impact of leading-edge scientific discoveries.

“The partnership provided an opportunity to democratize data, and the best way to show it was to take our time, which can be counter intuitive in the news cycle. During the pandemic we recognized the need to go back to primary sources. This also meant scientists were learning themselves as they built up their knowledge on the novel virus.

“We aimed to simplify everything for our audience. By launching the “sources” campaign, we demonstrated our trustworthiness and the depth of knowledge we cultivated to deliver compelling storytelling. Our audience doubled during the pandemic when we worked with the Royal Society to speed up the peer reviewed work. We invited them to become participants to the convening power of our news organization. Within a short time we had 200 articles, verbatim, with footnotes. We did not speak down to the audience. We slowed down, went when ready, and did it with expertise. In this way, we offered the audience to go on a journey, we were speaking out to them, not speaking down to them”, Walmsley said.

A key takeaway from the panel discussion was “Trustworthiness rather than trust”. 

“By reaffirming the optimistic lessons from the pandemic and promoting and living by the principles of investigative journalism – the relentless pursuit of truth –  you are also sharing the principles of scientific endeavour – the pursuit of truth. The platformization of content takes on a world of its own, where the language that applies is “biggest audience wins”, but is it nourishing or is it just empty calories? When it comes to the principle of intellectual capital, which is demonstrably trustworthy, social media cannot be the first place you go,” said added Walmsley.

The ISC will be exploring these issues in the months to come. The Centre for Science Futures will be releasing a discussion paper in July as part of the Public Value of Science programme. The paper will explore the implications of understanding trust, science, and publics for science engagement and will serve as a catalyst for conversations about how these insights into trust might impact the voice of and for science, for instance, in the digital domain, throughout pandemics, and amid reforms in academic publishing.

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