The emergence of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic suddenly made science and health journalists important in newsrooms. Virtually overnight, COVID-19 showed scientists, officials, authorities, and even the media themselves that good interlocutors are key to communicating complicated issues to broad audiences.
“There has been at least a tenfold increase in the number of journalists interested in science, and this has led to an increasing emphasis by the media on science-related and science-based stories," Rodrigo Medellin, a researcher at the Institute of Ecology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told SciDev.Net.
Medellin believes the pandemic has had a positive impact on the media and the way they cover science stories and choose their sources.
“The only thing I hope is that this is not a ‘backpack fire’ as we say in Mexico: a gigantic flame that lasts a very short time and goes out soon," he adds.
“As specialised journalists, we must gain legitimacy. The public must know that our information is correct – we must be rigorous, not necessarily the first [to publish a story],” Carlos Francisco Fernández, health journalist, El Tiempo
Aleida Rueda, president of the Mexican Network of Science Journalists (RedMPC in Spanish) and a SciDev.Net contributor, says the pandemic has revealed that Latin American countries lack good journalism that answers basic questions – should we wear face masks? – as well as harder ones – why do some people have symptoms and others do not?
"In this scenario, science journalism is needed more than ever, but I'm not so sure it's valued more than before," she says.
"The mainstream media continue to produce daily news based on opinions, with political flags, without self-criticism, as always. The hope, I think, is that people will find specialised journalism so necessary and fundamental that they will demand it more and more.”
Meanwhile, she sees the information provided by the mainstream media as another great health risk: the abundance of fake therapeutics, the creation of false expectations, the finding of “guilty” people and the “absolute” answers to complex questions.
This issue was one of the themes of the first Virtual Forum of Latin American Science Journalism, held from 6-15 May for more than 1400 journalists and communicators.
"As specialised journalists, we must gain legitimacy,” Carlos Francisco Fernández, a health journalist at the Colombian daily El Tiempo, said at the forum.
“The public must know that our information is correct – we must be rigorous, not necessarily the first [to publish a story]."
"We should take advantage of this situation to show how important we are," Marcelo Leite, a senior journalist at Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, told the forum.
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Today, the science journalist has to fight not only against ‘fake news’, but also against the unpredictable dynamics of the new pandemic.
"We must be especially cautious and try to explain how uncertain all this is," Nora Bär, president of the Argentine Network of Science Journalism, told the forum.
This is a huge challenge for a sometimes-neglected journalism specialisation.
Science journalism requires ongoing training and reading, especially in an uncertain context and when there are literally thousands of potentially ‘newsworthy’ scientific investigations being made.
Quite a challenge.