THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON SCIENCE COMMUNICATION
How does the pandemic impact public science outreach?
We have collected and analyzed the insights from researchers, communicators, and journalists.
Our results suggest that fake news and politicization are viewed as the main obstacles to efficient science communication, scientists are a trusted source of information, while journalists are lagging behind; and more than ever, professionals leverage social networks to reach out to the public.
As a positive note, the pandemic is viewed as an opportunity to develop new ways to communicate about science.
How did Covid-19 change the way we communicate science? Conversely, how could we communicate better about the science of Covid-19? The pandemic has not only disrupted the production of scientific knowledge, but also how it is being reported to the public. The amount of information and the pace of publication is unprecedented, with more than 200,000 research articles related to Covid-19 in 2020; many of these studies impact the public debate at the preprint stage, before being reviewed and published; the scientific discussions and search for consensus happens under an unprecedented public scrutiny, almost like a live reality show, in the media and in social networks.
To better understand how the pandemic is influencing science communication, we surveyed 165 people involved in science outreach in the United States (22.4%), Switzerland (33.9%) and India (43.6%). Our respondents are journalists (33.3%), professional communicators (41.8%), and researchers (24.9%). They all have a regular science outreach activity to inform or educate the public on Covid-19 related issues, mostly on social networks or in traditional media. They have answered several questions, from their most trusted sources to the impact of the pandemic on scientific publication or their favorite channels to reach out to the public. Interestingly, science communicators in all three countries share very similar views on most topics.
Most trusted sources are scientists…
By far, our respondent’s most trusted sources of information about the pandemic are researchers, universities, and international authorities such as the WHO. It is noticeable that trust in researchers is significantly higher for science communicators with the lowest amount of experience (0-5 years). Trust in universities is somewhat higher in Switzerland and the US than in India.
… while journalists are struggling for credibility
Journalists receive only moderate trust compared to the top 3 sources – even among their peers! The least trusted sources are local public authorities (in sharp contrast to international authorities), life science companies, and, as a distant last, influencers/columnists.
This finding is in line with other surveys. For example, the Science Barometer Switzerland (Wissenschaftbarometer) recently showed that on a scale from 1 (“don’t trust at all”) to 5 (“totally trust”), medical personnel and scientists earned the highest ratings at 4.1 and 3.9 respectively, well ahead of federal and cantonal officials (3.3), politicians (2.7) and journalists (2.6).
Population surveys from other countries such as Germany and the United States further underline that the underwhelming level of trust in journalists is a more global phenomenon.
Fake news and politicization are considered the biggest challenges for science communication
Our respondents were given the opportunity to pick the main issues hindering an effective and factual public communication on the science of the pandemic. By far, and regardless of their gender, communication experience level, profession, and country, the two main issues were:
● Conspiracy theories and fake news (average negativity score of 4.55 on a 1-5 scale)
● Politicization and political interferences (average negativity score of 4.29 on a 1-5 scale)
Both challenges do not come as surprises: the struggle against misinformation was a key item on the 2020 UN’s agenda, while political interferences are to be expected as each country faces numerous and sometimes disruptive or controversial policies regarding the pandemic.
This is especially true for the United States, where respondents were most concerned. During the 2020 election year, the political divide around the pandemic has been a widely discussed issue in the American media as well as by scholars, and is still a common source of heated partisan arguments.
Comparatively, the other issues were considered less detrimental. The public release of contradictory scientific information, as well as economic interferences, were respectively given a 3.46 and a 3.59 average negativity score on a 1-5 scale. Interestingly, while still considered problematic, the technical complexity of Covid-19 issues was given the lowest average negativity score (3.24).
Science communicators are very active on social media
Almost half of our respondents (46%) use social media on a daily basis to communicate about the pandemic. Twitter is clearly leading (87% of regular users). It is being followed by Facebook (58%), and LinkedIn (41%). Scientists are the least likely to use social media everyday.
This hierarchy holds true across professions, gender, countries, and experience level. A notable exception is WhatsApp in India, where the famous messaging app serves as a social media platform and has more weight than LinkedIn among science communicators.
Respondents point to quality control issues in Covid-19 studies
The unprecedented amount of scientific articles related to the pandemic, the accelerated publication pipeline and the widespread dissemination of results before peer-review arguably impact the standards of Covid-19 research. Indeed, quality control issues are among the most cited problem of our respondents, regardless of their communication experience levels, and gender. Interestingly, scientists and journalists show a bigger concern regarding this problem. Journalists are also more likely to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of available scientific information.
Communicators, on the other hand, also acknowledge an issue of quality control but to a lesser degree. They are also the group that agrees the most that “the increased use of not yet peer reviewed results for dissemination to the public is justified by the emergency of the situation”.
Questions that remain open: the pandemic as an opportunity and the role of social sciences
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates preexisting science communication issues. It also creates its own problems and challenges, and is expected to durably change the way science is reported to the public. While preliminary, our study has identified issues that might be worth investigating to understand the long term impact of this crisis on science reporting.
For example, a large majority of our respondents consider the pandemic as an opportunity for science communicators to reach broader audiences online. It would be interesting to know better what are their strategies, their targets, and their goals.
There is also a strong consensus about the need for more insights from social sciences in public reporting. This issue is quite certainly worth a deeper investigation, for example to determine how humanities could help to enrich public debates with novel perspectives on the pandemic’s social, psychological, cultural and economic impact.
These were just some of the main highlights from our study. We hope that they offer some new insight about how the pandemic is transforming science communication, as well as the role of science communication in managing the pandemic. For those interested in a deeper dive into the matter, we have published personal interviews and made our data available online.