She is "Scientist of the Year" and now also "COVID Communicator 2020". In the media and in public, the virologist Elisabeth Puchhammer-Stöckl (left) has distinguished herself as a factual and open communicator of scientific facts during the pandemic. © PRVA/APA-Fotoservice/Schedl

Never before have science and research been so much in the public eye as right now. There is a constant flood of media reports about what they have achieved in fighting the coronavirus, and rarely has the value of basic research been more apparent to the public. Researchers and experts feature prominently in the media and in numerous policy advisory bodies. And yet, empirical data show that public trust is waning, not only vis-à-vis policy-makers but also vis-à-vis the media and science. While representative longitudinal studies such as those conducted by Gallup/Medienhaus showed high credibility scores and high trust in established media and experts at the outset of the crisis, this approval rating has clearly eroded over time.

Viruses are not the only things that spread like wildfire – lies, fake news and propaganda also fan out quickly. Managing uncertainty through conspiracy theories, the targeted fomenting of outrage and the mobilisation of those who are frustrated by the prolonging of the state of emergency are probably some of the underlying causes of this “infodemic”. A (very vocal) minority that is generally sceptical of modern science and particularly averse to conventional medicine increasingly shuns all media covering these topics. In the social media, anti-science sentiments are dressed up as civil disobedience or satire.

Embedded in a social context

For this reason, science communication should not be content with merely preaching to the converted, but should react to the fragmentation of the public and, in the current situation, also to its polarisation. This is not about the democratisation of science itself, which should be guided by its inherent principles and include blue sky research that does not bow to the dictate of publicly negotiated utility. Rather, one should aim at democratising the communication of and about science and at embedding science communication in social contexts.

“Science communication should not merely preach to the converted, but should react to the fragmentation of the public.”

The path from a public understanding of science to a public engagement with science involves many communication channels: from classical public relations media work to debates on specific issues, from social media to podcasts, from involvement in journalists' training to media coaching for researchers appointed to prominent positions, from participatory processes such as citizen science to new communication formats.

New self-awareness of science

This implies not only a larger range of formats and (budget) resources, but also a new self-awareness of science organisations. In their capacity as platforms for curated knowledge they are called upon to actively offer state-of-the-art validated knowledge in their fields of research, to strengthen and defend trust in science and research even if they encounter headwinds. In its 2019 discussion paper Trust in Science and Changing Landscapes of Communication, ALLEA (All European Academies Organization) summarised this in the following way: “It is a crucial task for researchers and communicators of research to safeguard and reinforce the pillars of trust which are integrity, transparency, autonomy and accountability, in order to counter a loss of trust in and trustworthiness of science and research. They need to convincingly prove that a free and just society means a society in which all people are equal but not all expressions are equally true.”

A mistaken approach to objectivity

For professional media this means that applying “frames” such as conflict, competition (horse race), human interest and personalisation (replacing structural analysis) have no place in science reporting. After all, science is not politics. In science, the focus is on producing evidence-based knowledge and not on advocacy on behalf of specific interests.

“In science, the focus is on producing evidence-based knowledge and not on advocacy on behalf of specific interests.”

Finding a counter position, however ludicrous, for every scientifically underpinned statement does not produce more objectivity, but rather a false balance, and it unjustifiably shifts the focus of attention to marginal points of view. This does not imply that editors should have a naïve faith in science, but there should be a transparent coverage of scientific consensus and state-of-the-art insights. The same applies to the highlighting and scandalisation of one-off occurrences without discussing their degree of probability, the urge of interviewers to indulge in speculation (“what if”) and the attempt to wring answers from scientists to questions that cannot possibly be answered – for instance what the “meaning” of the pandemic was.

More discourse, more transparency, more funding

It would also make sense to have more interaction and discourse with the public and to openly address criticism, doubts and irritations. But equally to make it clear that the pretext of freedom of opinion does not constitute a right to engage in untrue representations of facts – neither in ethical nor in legal terms. Many media made an honest effort and tried to adapt to the new situation, but mere appeals to professional ethos will not be sufficient given the decline in media revenues, the impact of short-time working and the changing media-source habits of the audience.

“We need structures for competition and funding that are not solely geared to quantity but also support science journalism.”

We also need appropriate underlying conditions: structures for competition and funding that are not solely geared to quantity but also support science journalism and allow media to recruit more staff for their science desks, or even to establish science desks in the first place and ensure that a basic understanding of science is integrated in the on-going training of all editorial offices.

We would need appropriate regulation of social media and platforms, support for enhancing the public’s media and science literacy, for instance when it comes to separating facts from fiction, as well as additional funding in public budgets for science communication. In a nutshell: a regulatory basis for creating adequate conditions for more quality in science communication, but not only in science communication. By itself, science communication cannot stem the fragmentation and polarisation of society. But it can and should at least defend the tenet of enlightenment also in mediatised social spheres.

Matthias Karmasin is Director of the Institute for Comparative Media and Communication Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and the University of Klagenfurt, where he is Professor of Communication Science. Since 2011 he has participated in the philosophical-historical class of the ÖAW and in 2018 he was appointed full member of the European Academy of Sciences. Karmasin has led several basic research projects funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF.