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Explain clearly, debunk fake news

The social consequences of the Corona pandemic are far-reaching. Hannah Schmid-Petri, a member of bidt's board of directors, explains what lessons science communication can learn.

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In the current corona crisis, which – since we still do not know much about the virus – is characterised by great uncertainties, quality journalism fulfils important functions for society: it provides cleanly researched and comprehensive information, helps us to get an overview of the current situation and thus offers important orientation for our everyday life and our behaviour in the unfamiliar situation.

Especially in times like these, it becomes clear how important independent and free quality journalism is for our society. If one observes the reporting of the last few weeks (regardless of whether online or offline), in my opinion, three overarching lessons for science communication can be derived so far:

Science journalism and the training of science journalists should be strengthened (again)

A large part of the media coverage focuses on the presentation of the positively tested cases, on a comparison of these between individual regions and, based on this, on a discussion of political measures.

In the process, it usually remains unclear who exactly is tested and who is not, and it is usually not discussed that there are considerable statistical problems associated with reporting the number of cases of positively tested people (for a more detailed discussion of the statistical issues, see here an article in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit ).

In my opinion, the task of “good” science communication would be to concentrate less on the constant reporting of the current case numbers and instead to draw more attention to the statistical problems mentioned and to explain them so that they are also understandable to the general public.

The fact that this only happens in a few exceptional cases indicates, on the one hand, that the journalists and communicators themselves often do not have the necessary competencies to comprehend the problems. On the other hand, it also shows that science journalism, in particular, has suffered from the required cost-cutting measures of the publishing houses.

Abstract risks and initially invisible dangers must be vividly explained and made visible.

Another problem in focusing on the positively tested cases is that this kind of presentation makes the virus appear comparatively abstract.

However, to make the potential risk and also the need for restrictions in our everyday lives clear to a broad population, it is important, on the one hand, to establish a concrete link to the daily life and lifeworld of each individual and to make it clear that the virus can potentially affect us all (see, for example, the interview with the doctor Clemens Wendtner in the Time)

On the other hand, both the path of infection and the effect of the measures taken must be made visible and straightforward to set a behavioural impulse. A positive example of this is an article in the Washington Post which makes the effectiveness of physical distancing visible.

High-quality science communication as a counterbalance to fake news

High-quality science journalism that explains the background and potential consequences as clearly and comprehensibly as possible is also indispensable as a counterpoint to fake news, mainly spread online.

Important for debunking fake news is the exchange with others not from the immediate social environment, such as at school or work. However, due to current measures, this exchange is only possible to a very limited extent, which – combined with a situation of general insecurity – can potentially increase the spread and impact of fake news.

Established media brands or even individual experts can contribute to the fact that fake news can also be recognised and “unmasked” as such with their provision of information and their presence in social media.

Prof. Dr. Hannah Schmid-Petri

Member of bidt's Board of Directors | Chair of Science Communication, University of Passau