Let’s not fool ourselves. There was very little peculiar about this pandemic. I dare to say that only one factor was unique to this time and never lived in the history of mankind. Aware of being exaggerated, in this first column for Montevideo Portal I would like to reflect on this factor and a learning we must do if we want a society better prepared for what is sure to come.
Let’s see: There was already a global pandemic, for example, in 1918, and then about 50 million people died. At that time an unknown virus also emerged (today we know it was the flu) that after a few years became an almost harmless pathogen. There was fear, confusion and uncertainty in the population, and there was also scientific bewilderment. There was doubt about the origin of the pathogen, it was pointed to one side and the other, mistakes and some successes were made. There were even masks and social distance. Now, 100 years later, let’s agree that what we experienced no longer sounds original.
In that light, it may not seem so strange to say that the only exceptional thing about this pandemic was the way and speed in which scientific information was shared, the vertiginousness, the multiplicity of media, the infinity of voices, and with all of this, Difficulty thinking and making decisions. Of course, in 1918 there were also mass media that officiated at the meeting point between society and scientific knowledge, but their limited scope delayed and limited the circulation of information.
Now, however, all of a sudden and from multiple platforms, a continuous and unbridled bombardment of (scientific) information emerged. Everyone wanted to report and everyone wanted to know now. Were journalists prepared to carry out this task from the mass media? Was the public prepared to receive and understand the explosion of “information” on social networks?
For those professionals who report on many issues every day, science was an area far removed from political, economic, cultural or sports issues. Were they prepared to talk daily with scientists generally unaccustomed to the nature of journalistic work, its immediacy, its need for conclusive, unequivocal and “special” concepts for each medium?
Were journalists aware of the characteristics of the process of doing science, of the slowness and intrinsic uncertainty involved, of the inexorable change that knowledge experiences as it progresses?
All this and more had to be managed to know how to transmit information with professionalism. But the reality is that journalists who usually covered other areas (politics, general information, above all) had to learn on the fly to report on different issues always linked to science. The challenge, in Uruguay, was moderately well overcome, especially since journalism is a profession that is still being shaped and practiced as a trade. But the curious thing is that in the 21st century, and after decades of scientific and technological advances that break the eyes, that radically transform life, the pandemic found a journalism that still does not give rise to science as an area of essential coverage.
It is still a rarity that there are journalists specialized in covering science in the media. The pandemic then came to further evidence this lack, to highlight the work of the few scientific journalists who had the tools to respond to the situation. Perhaps they did not have the muscle developed to cover information that required news minute by minute, because scientific news is not against the clock, but without a doubt they had everything else.
Thus, while science accelerated what would have taken years of study to weeks, it was essential that communication help society understand that reality. That he understood that science could be wrong, but that he was working on decades of accumulated knowledge and that, ultimately, the focus was on the common good, on saving lives, on getting healthy again, even knowing that the urgency could have a cost .
Now journalism should learn that science can no longer be a section behind other more “prestigious” or unquestionable. In the 21st century, if a medium maintains that bias, if it does not give science the value of coverage area, it is looking to the past. And why not, learning could be extended to the curriculum of university and postgraduate courses in Communication.
And meanwhile, for the population, how to prepare to receive the avalanche of information from the networks? An answer can come, precisely, from journalism. Without doubting the undeniable contribution of networks to bring the voice of experts closer to the population and help democratize scientific discourse, these platforms entail the potential risk of the difficulty of verifying the origin, source and reliability of messages. In this scenario, the journalistic work of identifying reliable information and verifying data will benefit society, which will be able to make better decisions.
It remains for me to mention the importance of communication for the scientific community, since the pandemic made clear the need for greater contact between those who generate scientific knowledge, those who can transmit it professionally, and those who can benefit from that knowledge. Be willing —prepared— to dialogue with journalists and communicators; understand that communication is a knowledge in itself, that it is not enough for scientists to divulge, but it is necessary for them to participate in mass communication, are aspects that I observe, with joy, increasingly present among researchers
I have been working in scientific journalism since 1999 and one of my dreams has always been for scientists to be social actors, for their voices to be important not only for a specific study but also as references of scientific knowledge that permeates daily life today. The pandemic somehow fulfilled that wish, amplifying the voices that were previously confined to the pages of Science or in outreach talks in schools.
Therefore, it is important to understand that it is quality scientific communication that allows us to be better prepared for the world of scientific advances in which we have lived for decades, which gives researchers a voice to support the information that helps us decide , and the one that can allow journalistic work to collaborate in building an informed society.