Holly McElroy explores the difficult relationship between science and the media in the UK that has come to light as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When I looked at the coverage of Covid-19 over the past few months one thing I could not get out of my mind was the distinct lack of representation of science within the UK media. This global pandemic has brought to our attention the unease with which news outlets are currently forced to report on topics rarely given traction, such as epidemiology and immunity, indicative of a deficit of scientific understanding. This has highlighted not only a wider discrepancy between science and the media, but also one which may be hindering our understanding of the illness.
The vast majority of people working within the media in the UK are not science graduates. In fact a study by the Reuter Institute in 2015 found that journalists specialising in science and technology made up only 3% of the workforce, falling far behind culture, sports and entertainment. While it may seem appropriate for more humanities and arts graduates to take on careers in journalism given the skills involved in writing and producing, it is important to ask why so few people with scientific backgrounds are involved in the sector.
Looking at the BBC coverage alone, at the forefront of reporting have been Hugh Pym (health editor) and Tulip Mazumbar (global health reporter) who have degrees in sociology and PPE respectively. It does beg the question: shouldn’t some level of scientific education be required in such positions? Wouldn’t it be beneficial for the health editor of a major news outlet to have some background education in biological sciences?
I must stress that this is not just a problem for the BBC; it occurs within the majority of news channels and written media. For example, a recent article in The Financial Times ‘The battle at the heart of British Science over coronavirus’’ was written by Jonathon Ford, a business and finance graduate. Similarly, science correspondent for The Times, Rhys Blakely, who has covered topics such as ‘Coronavirus: Moderna’s US vaccine first trials show immune response’ has a bachelor’s degree in English. From my own experience I believe the fault lies partially with scientific bodies and universities for not informing graduates of transferable roles within science and failing to establish the importance of communication as well as other skills. Similarly, it is the fault of the media industry for setting the example that careers in communications or broadcasting are only accessible through certain degree programs, specifically humanities subjects.
A fundamental issue in bridging the gap between media and science has been the interpretation of science as a separate identity to other factors in society. This debate is nothing new; in a 2009 essay in Nature by Boyce Rensberger, the former Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Director at MIT reflected that since the 1930s and 1940s science journalist’s have sought to ‘persuade the public to accept science as the salvation of society’. Through doing this it emphasised the ‘wonders of science and respect for scientists, rather than on any analysis of the work being done or any anticipation of its effects on society’.
The same level of scientific totalitarianism, it is argued, can be seen in the UK government’s approach to dealing with Covid-19. SAGE, a group of independent scientists and officials called on by the government to convene periodical and handle specific crises, has been praised in the recent pandemic over claims it has brought rigour to government decision-making. However, this has only been achieved by separating science from politics and portraying one as more significant than the other. The Government has since displayed a dependency on epidemiologists, particularly the March report from Imperial College London which suggested 510,000 people could die from Covid-19. While it could be argued this is progress for science, it also suggests that the government is unwaveringly reliant on scientific advisors due to its own internal lack of capability and understanding of the processes occurring.
A defence often presented by the media to account for poor quality scientific reporting is the simple fact that science and news are not a good fit. This idea was recognised by the House of Lords Select Committee in their 3rd Science and Technology Report which observed that newsrooms deal with simplified stories put together in haste often with two opposing views and this is not a format where scientific discoveries or debates are easily placed. For example, Professor Ian Fells, winner of the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Award, recalls before an interview by Radio 1 being told to ‘not take more than 20 seconds and no long words, Professor’. This highlights an issue which is feared will only be exacerbated by the rise of digital media and streaming as we face overconsumption of visual entertainment and news outlets are under even greater pressure to hold viewers’ attention.
Other arguments have suggested that the perceived necessity within British media to tackle science as a medium of ‘infotainment’ has made it impossible to achieve any in depth understanding of the subject matter. So what exactly is infotainment? ‘Infotainment’ describes science writing that informs a non-specialist target audience about new discoveries in an entertaining fashion. This is done so readers or viewers without a professional scientific background can grasp the ideas driving the research, and it leads us to the currently held view that people would not be as interested in science if it was purely communicated by scientists.
This explains the reliance on arts and humanities-educated communicators, and falls in line with the argument that it is more important to engage the majority in scientific issues than provide indepth and precise reporting. A more effective approach would be to improve the accessibility of science and move away from a rigid framework, allowing the appeal of scientific news stories to flourish.
Furthermore, scientific information and developments are frequently weaponized by the media to prove certain points or ascertain a conclusion. A scientific finding is more often than not treated like a news story; there is a narrative, a central plot and a satisfying end. The fact that the media in general has become so reliant on the story arc dynamic found in fiction is a threat to news of any kind given that real life rarely follows this pre-set path. However, it is particularly damaging for science as our knowledge within this sector is ever-changing and expanding as new research and discoveries are made. Therefore to try and fix a simplistic narrative is to distort the entire discipline and I fail to see how this is anything but detrimental to public understanding of science.
Given that what we know in regard to science is constantly refining, the way the media uses this as a criticism to hinder scientific investigation is not only slowing the process, but making those involved more wary of sharing their knowledge. Take the example of the Covid-19 vaccine trials by Oxford University, which when unsuccessful were criticized by UK media outlets such as the Daily Mail for being unworthy of a $90m government investment, despite still contributing to our scientific understanding of the disease.
Covid-19 has provided, albeit at a high human cost, a strike of clarity to the fundamental flaws in our media service and its ability to communicate scientific stories. Though it should be noted that over the last ten years the number of science correspondents in the general press has risen, the UK far lags behind other European countries. In France, the top three leading newspapers have a total of seventeen science journalists while the UK equivalent (The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Independent) combined have only ten. When social distancing and isolation come to an end, as one day it must, we will have the chance to reintegrate. It is hoped that the same level of care and commitment we bring to piecing back together society could be used to build a more inclusive, representative relationship between science and the media.
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Holly McElroy is an Environmental Sciences graduate from Cardiff University and an Assistant Editor at Wales Arts Review.