Choose Your Words Wisely
Using the power of good science communication to combat the rise of fake news and misinformation
Liv Gaskill | | 2 min read | Opinion
A bold question: Being a scientist and a science communicator aren’t mutually exclusive, but should they be?
Earlier this year, researchers in Australia identified a biomarker that could one day help identify newborns at risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) (1). Important? Absolutely. Groundbreaking to the point where SIDS “may soon be a thing of the past” as suggested in an accompanying press release (2)? Not quite. But that didn’t stop many media outlets and social media users running with the “miracle finding” narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good catchy headline and gripping opening paragraph as much as the next writer, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of sacrificing scientific or journalistic integrity.
As scientists, we’re taught to critically appraise papers, avoid sensationalist messaging, and question everything we read. Media professionals with no science background may not be afforded the same training but, then again, media and communication training aren’t typically covered in-depth (or at all) in most science degrees.
Those working in science or media have clear complementary skills that, if combined correctly, can deliver the most effective messaging. Scientists who struggle with science communication and simplifying complex topics should work with the media to create engaging messaging; likewise, journalists with no scientific background should be fact- (or sanity-) checking with experts to avoid sensationalist language and the risk of misleading readers.
The SIDS biomarker story appears to be a relatively harmless case of accidental misinformation, rather than a deliberate, malicious attempt to spread fake news. But what happens when the latter is the aim?
The process of scientific understanding unfolded in real time – and on a global stage – during the COVID-19 pandemic, which inevitably led to conflicting information from governments and health officials. Trust in experts, researchers, and healthcare providers unraveled in some camps, and allowed misinformation – and its nasty cousin, disinformation – to run rampant. If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that current anti-misinformation laws and regulations struggle to combat committed science-deniers and die-hard anti vaxxers who go to great lengths to peddle their falsehoods.
Representing one small step in the right direction, California’s Legislature recently approved a bill that would hold doctors who intentionally disseminate misleading health information to patients accountable for “unprofessional conduct” (3). However, it only represents one state and only applies to doctors – who will hold those outside the medical field accountable and clean up the mess they leave behind?
Until more widespread disinformation laws (that actually work) are in force, using strong science–media collaborations to craft compelling but accurate communications could help avoid unintentional misinformation and dampen the impact of toxic fake news.