Could science be communicated better during the next pandemic? – the lessons the SMC has learned during COVID-19
This is a guest post by Fiona Lethbridge, Senior Press Manager at the SMC.
Since 2002 the Science Media Centre has existed to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the national news media – to try to help journalists access top scientific expertise when they need it, and to try to ensure science and evidence has its say in the big stories of the day.
Over the last 20 years we have been doing this on a huge number of different scientific topics and stories – from GM to statins, from antidepressants to climate change, from fracking to e-cigarettes – all with the aim of trying to ensure media coverage of science is as accurate and evidence-based as possible, to make sure what the public are reading in the news is measured and informed by science and scientists.
When the SMC turned 10 in 2012 we carried out a strategy review to ask our key stakeholders (scientists, journalists, and press officers) whether what we were doing was still useful and whether they felt we needed to make any major changes. The feedback was clear – we were still needed and what these three groups of people wanted was more of the same: a focus on news, a need for speed, and prioritising the controversial and messy stories.
Having taken on board that feedback and stuck to our original remit, we were lucky to find ourselves able to hit the ground running when COVID-19 arrived in 2020. We had a template ready to go – a rapid reaction service for journalists and a heroic list of top scientists willing to speak to journalists about the emerging science of the virus (on top of, in many cases, carrying out that science in the first place). We are hugely indebted to the many amazing scientists who saw the importance of media and public engagement during the pandemic and who gave up their time to do it. We are incredibly lucky too to have a brilliant crop of quality science and health journalists who rose to the occasion to get to grips with the evidence and follow every twist and turn of the pandemic.
Approaching our 20th birthday in 2022, and with various public inquiries and lessons learned exercises on the horizon, we asked our Board of Advisors and Trustees whether we should carry out a big piece of work to produce our own evidence or carry out our own lessons learned consultation. Our Board wisely suggested that we did have something to say from our own perspective of how science media relations had gone during the pandemic, but that we needn’t embark on a big project. Instead they suggested we write down our recommendations in a quick and dirty fashion, based on what we thought had gone well and what we thought hadn’t. They also rightly pointed out that our thoughts probably weren’t unique to COVID-19 but were things we had felt and said publicly before on other issues.
Here are our recommendations regarding science and the media, based on our experiences during COVID-19. The pandemic has certainly cemented and crystallised many of these points, but they have applied to other science stories in the past and will no doubt apply again in the future. What was different about COVID-19 for us was the sheer size of the story – the appetite from journalists was bigger and more sustained than ever, and the quantity of science emerging was enormous. This scale – and the nature of the emergency – meant we felt these things even more keenly and we felt the responsibility on scientists and journalists was never greater than when the future of the pandemic depended on public understanding and public behaviour. The need, for example, for good scientists with senior expertise who were close to the evidence to share that expertise with the public via the media was never greater. Scientists sticking to the evidence and to their area of expertise was never more important. And the separation of science and evidence from politics was never more crucial.
Broadly, the UK media covered COVID-19 very well – when the next pandemic arrives we will argue for more of the same: top quality scientists engaging with the media and answering journalists’ questions when their expertise hits the headlines. But we felt it was worth us highlighting which aspects we felt were most important and where changes or clarifications might be made ahead of the next emergency.
The Science Media Centre’s recommendations on science and the media, based on our experience during the COVID-19 pandemic
Recommendation 1: Scientists should be encouraged to engage with the media during a crisis when their area of expertise hits the headlines, no matter how controversial the topic. Universities, research institutes and funders should support their academics to speak to journalists, including offering media training to those who want it.
Scientists engaged with the media during the pandemic like never before.
The public benefitted from hearing directly from the best scientists who were researching various aspects of the virus – public access to the best science via the media was essential to public understanding and behaviour.
Recommendation 2: The scientific community and universities need to retain some capacity and expertise in their communications teams to be ‘media-first’ and to do research communication.
A rapid reaction service for the media was needed during the pandemic with quality of science at its heart. The SMC ran over 250 press conferences and issued written comments on around 1,800 breaking news developments or new studies on COVID-19.
Many research institutions have moved away from a ‘media-first’ focus towards creating their own content, and communications departments have diversified to include marketing, student recruitment, reputation management etc.
During the pandemic some research institutions struggled to meet the needs of the 24-hour news media, and were often taken off the pandemic to deal with other crises. Some said this made it harder to support their scientists doing media work.
Recommendation 3: Newsrooms should retain and invest in their specialist science and health reporters.
The pandemic demonstrated the value of specialist science and health reporters who are used to reporting on scientific evidence and taking into account uncertainties – they are allies in the fight against misinformation.
These specialists spend as much time telling their news desks what not to cover as they do reporting the science they assess to be worth reporting.
Some scientists were put off engaging with political journalists when their comments were used to fuel political rows in the media rather than in helping explain the science.
Articles getting the most clicks from the public were often straight, sciencey explainers.
Recommendation 4: Scientists should stay in their lane and be ‘sciencey’.
Public interest is best served by scientists who comment within their area of research and expertise – scientists specialise for good reason.
When everyone in the country is an armchair epidemiologist, scientists should speak from evidence and with reference to research and data – not opinion or ideology.
Scientists need to earn the high levels of public trust in scientists and demonstrate trustworthiness – judging each piece of evidence on merit and changing their minds as the evidence changes.
Scientists should rule themselves in and out of particular media interactions based on their expertise and help journalists and the public understand the degree of confidence or uncertainty they have when assessing new scientific studies.
Recommendation 5: Multiple voices and open scientific disagreement is part and parcel of good science.
Government communications experts often favour clear, single public health messages and politicians were keen to say they were following ‘the’ science – but science is often messy and unsettled, especially with a new virus.
Glossing over uncertainty and conflicting views to create a simple ‘message’ is unscientific and risks undermining public trust in science.
Multiple voices show the public where there is consensus and where there are different views within the scientific community, helping them assess where the weight of evidence lies.
Multiple voices also demonstrates independence and prevents leaving a void in the media that could be filled with misinformation.
Public interest is best served by allowing lots of good, qualified scientists to have a voice and thrash out uncertainties and disagreements in the public arena.
Recommendation 6: The communication of new scientific data conducted in universities and research institutes should be separate from government communication, and announcements of new scientific data should not be on the government ‘grid’.
The scientific community can strive to resist the politicisation of science.
Independent scientists conducting studies and gathering data, even if commissioned by government departments, should be free to communicate that data separately from government.
Communication of science carried out in universities and research institutes should be led by science press officers in those research institutes, not by government departmental communications teams directed by Number 10 or the Cabinet Office – it should not need a ‘grid’ slot.
Publicly-funded science should be treated more like statistics where a Code of Practice stipulates official statistics should be put into the public domain independently from government policy statements.
Recommendation 7: Independent scientists appointed to a SAGE should be encouraged to speak to the media in their academic capacity about their science.
Some of the best scientists in the UK are appointed to a SAGE and its sub-groups during a national crisis.
It’s imperative their voice and expertise is not lost to the media and public – we need the best scientists to be informing the public too; public understanding of COVID-19 was enhanced hugely by them hearing from SAGE participants throughout the pandemic.
Scientists participating in a SAGE should be supported to do media work about the science, even if they cannot speak about what was discussed at meetings or comment on the rights or wrongs of government policy.
Clear written guidance for independent academic scientists who are appointed to a SAGE regarding media work could help those scientists understand that they are able to speak to the media about evidence – and could prevent leaving a void that could be filled by people with less or no expertise.
Recommendation 8: The nature of scientific advice should be better explained and understood before the next emergency.
A lack of clarity over the role of scientific advisers and of the process and breadth of scientific advice to the government (including that from SAGE and NERVTAG, but also from other sources) allowed people to misunderstand or misrepresent how scientific advice works.
More clarity and openness around this process could improve public understanding of who produces evidence, who provides advice, and who makes policy decisions.
Recommendation 9: The CSA and CMO should make themselves available to the media and public as well as advising and briefing ministers.
Public access to the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Medical Officer was extraordinary and unprecedented during the pandemic – e.g. daily televised press conferences, regular Science & Technology Commons committee sessions, off-record briefings for science journalists to coincide with SAGE documents, Science Media Centre on-record press briefings, etc.
This undoubtedly saved lives and enhanced public understanding of the science.
Membership of SAGE and minutes of SAGE meetings were also published.
This was new and should be celebrated – it had not been the case during previous emergencies such as BSE, foot and mouth disease, the Fukushima crisis, the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud or serious flooding incidents in the UK.
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[I suspect this is probably not within SMC’s remit.]
Might there be some way new news could be flagged? When there is overwhelming comment/context/announcements it’s hard to identify what is genuinely new. Did we know that already? Is this something that is worth reading up on because we haven’t heard it before?
SMC did a great job during the pandemic. Incredible work by the team who never seemed to sleep! I agree with all the recommendations. In relation to CSA and CMO ones in particular (perhaps others) I was really disappointed that there was no explanation or accountability for the decisions made around the covid symptoms and why they never changed on the NHS website until March 2022. Really appalling. There is no excuse for what is effectively misleading the public and such lack of clear decision-making could have lead to deaths and severe illness as people relying on the website may not have tested or self-isolated as a result. Could it be that politics got in the way of saving lives because the information on symptoms came from the Zoe app and not a government-funded department? I do wonder.
Recommendation 2, that universities should retain a science-communications function, is even more true here in the USA. Media officers are tasked with fundraising from alumni, recruiting students, promoting sports, and reputation management….anything but communicating the university’s science contributions.
This is very insightful and resonates with our experiences as afriSMC. In April 2021, we conducted a FGD where journalists shared experiences on best practices for covering pandemics. One thing that stood out was the need for governments to give journalists extra access to information on Covid-19 treatment, variant outbreaks, control measures, and the safety of vaccines. Lockdown decrees also affected journalists’ work immensely, thus special treatment as frontline workers were advised by the journalists who participated in the FGDs AfriSMC conducted in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. Now that the pandemic is slowing down in most African countries and slowly receding from the headlines into the hind-lines, it is perhaps time to reflect on lessons learned as you have done. Thank you
I am happy to endorse these recommendations. Thank you for this good work.
Wishing you well,
Professor of Outbreak Medicine and Child Health, University of Liverpool
In respect of recommendation 6, it is worth reflecting why statistics are independent – they can move markets and unequal access to significant news is considered at odds with principles of public goods. Assured standards for production are in place for scientific work, but the Code of Practice for statistics is about equal access to information, explicitly including the originators, which is open science. So the recommendation ought to be about government work adopting scientific norms, not a new code of practice.