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Dispelling Doubt: Effective Scientific Journalism in a Time of Polarisation

In an era of rapidly evolving information and ever-burgeoning scientific innovations, it can be disheartening to witness the persistent lack of trust in the scientific process and establishment particularly in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to communicate information regarding the virus, especially ways to prevent and treat symptoms in a simple and robust manner, was paramount, at the beginning of the pandemic. To address this need the authors wrote a short piece stressing the importance of scientific journalism in this endeavour suggesting that…

Science journalists have a fundamental responsibility in being accurate and unbiased but also have a social responsibility to inform, enlighten, and to serve as a bridge between the scientific establishment and the public. Science journalists must become beneficent mediators in order to help create an understandable and comprehensible stream of information for consumers to digest with the goal of humanising findings and both engaging and enticing the public toward action – even if that action is a simple acknowledgment of the truth.1

With the new demands of the pandemic scientific reporting adjusted, with contributions becoming more frequent, timely, readily digestible and accessible. Despite this, public skepticism about science has remained a constant and significant hurdle to overcome, and in that sense scientific journalism has not met the simple goal of moving the public toward action and the acknowledgment of facts. The main reason for this failure was that those who were disseminating scientific information largely were ignorant of the powerful forces that undermined their efforts, and when they were aware they were ill-equipped to address these deleterious efforts. Furthermore, science writers are often unfamiliar with effective communication styles that take into account the psychology of persuasion, social identity and epistemic differences amongst their potential audience members.

Prior to the epidemic there was a large push to educate lay people in regard to general scientific literacy in hopes of building a public trust in scientific institutions and ultimately improving public health. This was mainly accomplished by science writers who became very proficient in interpreting and translating complex technological concepts into simple, understandable and consumable language. More recently those undertaking this lofty task have vastly underestimated the role of social identity and partisan politics in both information consumption, evaluation and adoption. The focus of science writers must now shift to making scientific information not only more easily consumable but also more relatable and relevant to a politically hyperpolarised society. By employing clear and concise language, to providing relatable examples, engaging commentary, acknowledging differences while focusing on a shared set of values, desires and concerns that emphasize self-benefit, and matching the delivery of their message to the epistemic style of the recipient, science writers will be better able to convey complex scientific concepts in a manner that resonates with diverse audiences across a wide spectrum of political ideologies and hopefully rebuild trust in the process.

One major challenge in building this public trust continues to lie in the public’s limited understanding of the prolonged and complicated nature of the scientific process. Science is a repetitive and self-correcting endeavour, subject to rigorous scrutiny and advancing from constant review and revision. Inappropriately, many lay individuals expect immediate answers and highly conclusive results, which of course can lead to hasty judgments and premature conclusions. Incomplete findings or contradictory information are often misinterpreted as confusion, a lack of credibility or deliberate deception, creating a loop of confirmation bias in which recipients only access information that supports their preexisting beliefs, thus perpetuating a distrust in science as a whole. It is the responsibility of scientific journalism to educate the public about research methodology, fostering patience and appreciation for the meticulous process that underpins scientific progress.