Think media are impartial

Journalism between trivialization and alarmism

In November of last year, exactly zero scientists worldwide researched COVID-19. Nobody suspected that this disease even existed. Just over a year later, in mid-December 2020, the PubMed metadata database lists more than 82,000 scientific articles on COVID-19!

A tsunami of publications had struck the world. Because SARS-CoV-2 showed mankind for the first time what a zoonosis can do in times of globalization: After China initially appeared to have been far away and people in this country felt pity for the people who were locked down in the city of eleven million Wuhan were included, the number of cases and deaths exploded within a few weeks everywhere. Within a year, more than 75 million people worldwide contracted COVID-19 and more than 1.6 million patients died from it.

On January 10, 2020, Chinese scientists put the complete genetic information of the new coronavirus online - and the message about it appeared simultaneously on researchers' cell phones and computers around the world.

Many of them remembered the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003, the first pandemic of the new millennium, which was followed by the outbreak of MERS-CoV in 2012.

It was clear to all researchers that they would now have to deal with a new enemy. Just how serious it was couldn't be said yet. Nevertheless, most of the scientists switched from their normal work to the new pathogen and devoted themselves to COVID-19. A few days later, the media lifted.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the facts were poor, but that changed quickly. The research of COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and the development of the vaccine did not only take place in record time - but for the first time in history directly under the eyes of the world public. Everything was different with that. The population's need for information was and is overwhelming. And it was especially at the beginning of the proverbial egg dance to sensitize people to the critical situation without falling into alarmism.

Even local journalists pondered the R-value

At least since the first lockdown press conference by Chancellor Angela Merkel, there has been hardly any other topic in the editorial offices than Corona - apart from a brief recovery phase during the summer when the number of cases was low. Whether the SARS pandemic in 2002, the swine flu in 2009 or the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014: The reporting about them and the public interest in them pale against COVID-19.

While surveys had earlier shown that trust in the established media in Germany - despite all the debates about fake news - was comparatively high even before the crisis, it seemed to be growing due to Corona: In any case, the use of traditional media decreased in recent months too, as the "COSMO - COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring" from the University of Erfurt shows.

In the most recent survey, for example, most respondents would like to be informed about the vaccination against the coronavirus via television and radio and from their doctors. But websites and blogs that deal with Corona also achieve record views. Virologists are permanent guests on political talk shows.

And so the topic had left the science department, so to speak, in which journalists are trained in assessing the quality and relevance of a publication in their own specialist area. It was now number 1 in the political as well as in the economic department, the miscellaneous editors picked it up, and the local journalists, who had never had anything to do with science, suddenly dealt with the 7-day incidence and R-value Dynamics of doubling times, infection mortality, with risks and probabilities.

Dealing with uncertainties, which are elementary and natural for science, is quite difficult for many journalists, politicians and society. Most of them want understandable and unambiguous statements, clear recommendations for action - even if science cannot give them or not yet.

Scientists are suddenly in the spotlight themselves

The researchers find themselves in this area of ​​tension. In their work they may well have been used to being involved as experts in politics. After all, they are needed to explain and enlighten - and to legitimize decisions: as backed by the judgment of independent scientists who are not dependent on the administrative apparatus. That relieves the political actors. You follow the expert advice - at least as long as it is, so to speak, your sense.

But in the pandemic, the position of the experts changes again: They are suddenly in the spotlight themselves. Christian Drosten, Marylyn Addo, Alexander Kekulé, Hendrik Streeck, Sandra Ciesek, Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit - interviews and talk shows fill and fill their diaries: they have to push ahead with their research at full speed - and maintain a dialogue with the media.

The scientists are suddenly part of a game that is often alien to them and the rules of which change over time. In the first phase, they were especially important in order to provide fact-based information and to establish objectivity.

Later on, they should no longer necessarily appear as an impartial body, but rather spark controversy. However, one should not hide the fact that some people might want to do this themselves now and then, after all, they too have their own interests, for example when it comes to funding.

In any case, researchers are also being instrumentalized by the media in the hectic corona crisis: They are out of the quasi-protected science journalistic circle in which their work is at stake and find themselves in an arena in which they can be hyped up as a person then - just like politicians - to be the target of attacks and criticism. And the more so, the closer they come to politics in their public appearance. Christian Drosten in particular attracted criticism in his role as advisor to the Chancellor.

The “trusted virologist” became a figure of hatred for some

His person shows how difficult it can be to stand. For most, he is the “virologist of trust” - for some, however, a figure of hatred, aimed at polemics and malicious comments.

But his role as a “trusted virologist” also has its pitfalls: Each of his statements can simply be passed on to a large public without context and immediately become a much-discussed political issue. For example, the suggestion to think about whether the quarantine could not be shortened if an infection is suspected. One would have to research that, but the emotions boiled high.

Research is difficult under the magnifying glass of the media and the public: There is hardly any room for the otherwise usual scientific debates about data and analyzes.

Dagmar Röhrlich, Science journalist

In any case, research under the magnifying glass of the media and the public is difficult: There is hardly any room for the otherwise usual scientific debates about data and analyzes, which are hidden from the public in the laboratories, at conferences and workshops.

This brought about a development in the media debate that has long been practiced in physics or computer science, but only for a few years in medicine and the life sciences: preprints.

For science, the advantage is clear: so that others can continue working with new data and findings as quickly as possible, many studies are published on pre-print servers without lengthy control experiments or even peer reviews: preliminary results that may or may not be important . In the past they were only interested in fellow researchers and perhaps a few specialists among the journalists, but the discussion papers published on bioRxiv or medRxiv have now mutated into a source of information for the media.

Pre-prints difficult to see through for laypeople

The problem: It is hardly possible for outsiders to decide which of these preprints is worth reporting on. Many journalists will have been grateful that the Science Media Center Germany, supported by the Klaus Tschira Foundation, which mediates between science and journalism, repeatedly publishes commented lists of the most important preprints.

Above all, however, the press and the public first had to learn that the findings were unsecured and therefore limited in their meaningfulness.

In the past few months, for example, preliminary analyzes that otherwise “mature” in discussions with colleagues have been rejected or confirmed, have made headlines in the corona crisis and have been discussed controversially in public.

Famous and notorious examples are the Heinsberg Corona Study or the surveys on the risk of infection by children. The latter was turned through the mills of the tabloids: They had aroused their interest because the unclear infectiousness of children moved hearts.

As a result of Corona, scientific debates took place in the mass media, often under simplistic or polarizing headings. The result: The impression could be created that the scientists contradict or even quarrel on fundamental issues. However, this may have reduced the willingness to accept the research results and act accordingly.

And some things really reminded you of a cacophony - for example, when it came to the sense or nonsense of the mask requirement, the use or non-use of everyday masks and so on. This in turn has an impact on credibility, arouses doubts and ultimately reduces the willingness to withdraw in times of pandemic: wear masks, stay at home, reduce contacts.

Fake news spreads faster than knowledge

This effect can be intensified via the internet and social media. The New York Times described how the World Health Organization (WHO) tries to oppose “infodemic”, against the fact that false information or half-truths about viruses and pandemics can spread faster than reliable knowledge.

Knowledge - by the way - always has the clear "disadvantage" of having to be worked out first and therefore being slower than any rumor that is then spread in everyday language on social media.

In this context, Volker Stollorz, editor-in-chief of Science Media Center Germany, draws attention to the problem of “motivated cognition”: that people, even if they subjectively want to know the truth, can react defensively to new information if it reflects their “perceived truths “Endanger. They seek proximity to the media and communities where they can hold onto their beliefs - sometimes even after having been cleared up of a mistake.

Or to put it another way: They prefer to stay in their echo chambers, where they can meet up with their own kind and make themselves comfortable, so to speak.

Stollorz ‘Thesis: In Germany, serious journalism was a kind of anchor in the search for information during the fear at the beginning of the pandemic. But over time, the internet and social media played an increasingly important role: people believe they can find relevant information there - conveniently and free of charge. They systematically underestimate the extent of the disinformation and the effect it has.

Researcher podcasts are not journalism

In order to counteract the infodemia through social media and also the reporting, especially in the initial phase, when the journalists were not yet familiar with, some scientists - thankfully - took on the problem via their own podcasts or blogs.

The collaborations that came about, for example between the NDR and the virologist Christian Drosten, ensure coverage. That didn't just create more microblogs with a few dozen or a hundred followers. Rather, what is posted is read millions of times.

But Holger Wormer, Professor of Science Journalism at the Technical University of Dortmund, noted in an interview with the website that this cooperation was often too affirmative for him. "If you simply provide a researcher with a platform on which he can tell his or her point of view, then that is perhaps an instructive format for science communication, but it has nothing to do with journalism." Critical questions and discussions are neglected, and that is exactly what makes good journalism.

The corona crisis has shown that journalism, and even more so science journalism, has to do justice to its task as gatekeeper: It is not possible to simply pass on what is presented, but to work according to professional journalistic rules, which is very important if credibility is to be maintained .

Good journalism costs

The problem: In the future, political decisions will have to be made more and more often on the basis of scientific knowledge not only on the corona issue, but also, for example, in the climate crisis. This also means that well-founded journalism about research findings is becoming more and more important, because these findings must be transported, understood and ultimately also accepted.

Unfortunately, this gatekeeping function has declined in recent years. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that only a few natural scientists decide to pursue a career in journalism, which is understandable in view of the difficult prospects.

This is where the real problem becomes apparent: good journalism costs. And in times when the public has got used to free offers on the Internet, financing becomes more and more difficult. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last - not to mention the many other problem areas facing humanity.

Without science, the challenges of the 21st century in a world with almost nine billion people, in a biodiversity crisis and with accelerating climate change cannot be solved. But science also has to be conveyed. From a neutral side - and with expertise.

Dagmar Röhrlich is a multi-award-winning science journalist and book author. Born in Aachen in 1956, she studied geology and geophysics and later worked for radio. In 1999 she received the Georg von Holtzbrinck Prize for Business Journalism, and in 2003 the RWTH Prize for Science Journalism. In the 2019/2020 winter semester, Dagmar Röhrlich held the Springer Nature visiting professorship for science communication at Heidelberg University.