Important updates and achievements in the scientific community are communicated to us by the media. This is known as scientific journalism which plays an important role in sparking public conversation, facilitating policy development and ultimately helps us to solve important collective problems.
However, journalists’ power to affect how the public views science has not been without its roadblocks nor speed humps. As trust in the old media has hit historic lows in recent years, together with the proliferation of new information sources through new media, people have absorbed a variety of mistruths, myths and confusion surrounding matters of science.
The digital era of journalism has enabled the spread of scientific mistruths—often exacerbated by big corporations and political actors with vested interests—contributing to the creation of a “post-truth” world.
This is a slippery slope in a context in which scientific communication is particularly pertinent as the world faces the incredibly real and fast-moving threat of climate change. It has become apparent that it has never been a more important time for journalism to ensure it is serving the vital purpose of linking scientific developments with citizens.
The miscommunication of climate science is an issue that plagues many countries, delaying meaningful action on climate change and has already led to catastrophic consequences.
Here in Australia we have not escaped unscathed, with climate change becoming a real political hot cake in recent years. Ex-Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ultimate demise due to political chaos following her policy of a carbon pricing scheme is etched into our nation’s consciousness, with many current politicians still too spooked to act.
This leads to the question – are journalists communicating science properly? Some have argued that journalists are failing in their scientific communication, such as Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre who explores this topic in his column and website.
In his work Goldacre routinely sheds light on the dismal behaviour of big pharmaceutical companies or mistruths spread by alternative, zeitgeisty therapies. He crusades against politicians’ misuse of evidence and dissects the myriad of ways journalists mislead the public.
While journalists do need to shoulder some blame for this, scientists also have something to answer for. For many years, scientists did not put enough time or value into communicating findings from their work.
This, coupled with the fact that many climate scientists have become mistrusting of journalists over the years while watching the proliferation of irresponsible reporting rife with the cherry-picking of facts propagating climate denialism.
While some progress is being made to help scientists communicate better, less is being done to help journalists. Compounding this issue is the fact of ever-shrinking newsrooms as well as newsroom cost-cutting structures which create an over-reliance on less-experienced journalists who lack appropriate training.
What then, can journalism educators do to combat the growing threat of ignorance and/or denial of science?
Some academics have suggested an interdisciplinary approach —meaning a blending of STEM field and journalism students to allow for a cross-pollination of ideas and experiences related to the use and misuse of scientific information in the public sphere
At the base of this idea is the ability to unite to disciplines whose practitioners have important roles as truth-tellers in society but who often speak different languages.
The Society of Environmental Journalists has also created some general guidelines for journalism educators to help students be better equipped to tackle complex scientific issues. They are centred around the fundamental need to understand statistics, peer review, how to read scientific sources and appropriate understanding of public relations.
Although digital media and the sharp increase in the participatory nature of journalism is arguably to blame for some of the scientific mistruths that have spread, it isn’t all doom and gloom.
In recent years digital media has made leaps and bounds. Forward-thinking progressive outlets are harnessing the powers of new media, using a variety of new ways to communicate complex scientific problems.
Animations, infographics, links to glossaries and the rise of explainers are being used to improve audience’s science literacy as outlets find ways to communicate progress in science which break traditional narrative formulas.
New media has also enabled and encouraged the formation of ‘online communities’ where members are highly engaged, fostering reader loyalty through a shared interest in climate change.
The interactivity between audience and journalists allowed by the affordances of digital media, in particular social media, has been encouraging for environmentalism.
Media outlets who have taken the issues of climate change seriously have proven to succeed, showing a growing appetite for action on climate change through their audience’s willingness to pay for public interest journalism.
As the issue of climate science has been around for over forty years, environmental journalists have needed to adapt and find innovative ways to make the issue newsworthy. It is now clear they are using new media to do just that.