“To Know” – That’s the Essence of Journalism! But how could “knowing” (news) and “knowledge” (science) find common ground?
The daily journalist is the professional who doctors us against informational nightmares – the wordplay I prefer to use in order to summarise this vocation (which is vocal in both a literal and a figurative sense). And I use that metaphor because, paradoxically, it is “in broad daylight” when “the night of the mind” acts with a most uncommon ferocity. This saying applies with particular accuracy to the so-called science journalism. This specialised form of journalism only managed to become its own thing starting in the second half of the twentieth century, occupying today a significant portion of the written, audio-visual and online press. Science journalism must be produced and consumed as something more than a mere form of entertainment. Sure, it diversifies our field of understanding of the world and of life, but its purpose is not to delight – even though it has curiosity (and curiosities) at its core –, nor is it to distract – though it successfully deviates from the trivialisation of reality and, equally so, from its vulgarisation. One of the harsher “stress tests” it was confronted with was the Covid-19 pandemic, which consisted of a mix of fake news and pseudoscience that oscillated between (or was even maintained by) “occult conspiracies” and “official statements”.
Just as the Scientific American publication has suggestively pointed out – the mediatisation of this pandemic was comparable to building an airplane while piloting it at a supersonic speed in the midst of a hurricane. Science (mainly the medical one) made bits of progress every day, so there were no stable research results or consensuses from experts on which one could base (ideally) objective reports. On top of that, many were those quick to exploit this news swamp by creating a secondary epidemic, which featured three viral and interweaved/interconnected “variants” – misinformation (where the problem consisted only in the information’s lack in accuracy), disinformation (which aims to lead some people astray by appealing to their ignorance) and malinformation (where harm is deliberately generated and aimed at a particular individual or group). The mixing and muddling of these three “variants” was itself a vicious characteristic of the act of mass-spreading falsehoods. And trying to establish some sort of order to such an informational fiasco was a mission in which the front liners could be none other than, you guessed it, the science journalists. The only issue is that, here too, some forms of ill-health would surface – the ones pertaining to the “marketplaces of ideas”.
The marketplace of ideas is a symbolical space which consists of at least three overlapping (or even interconnected) layers – the first one, in which researchers exchange their scientific conclusions based on their carefully demonstrated hypotheses; the second one, where producers and consumers put forward their business ideas centred around profitability and the degree to which people’s needs are met; the third one, in which, either in support or in spite of the will of the people, politicians either regulate or outright ban some ideas which are too critical or simply detrimental to “society”. As a “fourth estate”, journalism (with its scientific squad) helps cleanse these ideas by channelling them through these three filters – the purely scientific one, the private entrepreneurial one, and the public authoritarian one –, hopefully orienting them to the sweet spot: (scientifically) true, (economically) profitable and (politically) undisturbed ideas. And if there is anyone who still thinks that the pandemic was the peak of (science) journalism’s disarray, then they are sort of forgetting something – that the science of Economics is the apex. Precarious concepts, applied to deceitful business models and perverted policies, have survived (and have been recurring) for centuries.
Right, but why this “out of the blue” fixation on science journalism? That’s cute, since blue sky, fertile soil and green grass were actually among the topics of the 25th TARS International Conference (25-27 May 2023, at Vatra Dornei, Suceava County, Romania), a customary event for the tourism professionals, but not only for them, where the Romanian Professional Journalists’ Union (UZPR) has organised a workshop dedicated to mass-media’s (re)connecting to the necessary and opportune forms of science. Cui prodest? My answer is “to everybody” since, for one, this helps make the act of researching more transparent, which is especially helpful in a context where “science” poses as a public good and makes good use of public money. And taxpayers-citizens, as consumers of public goods, are the only morally legitimate judges of their qualitative and quantitative provision. Furthermore, it increases the responsibility of the scientist, pulling him away from the “higher” spheres of academia and putting him in front of a larger, more diverse audience. Last but not least, it is an exercise to strengthen the sense of civic duty, the only weapon allowed in a democracy, a system where only hardened judgement can enable us to be “useful”, without becoming… “usable”.
Photo source: PxHere.