‘SCIENCE v clickbait’, ‘science journalism: misleading mass people’, ‘communication gap between scientists and science journalists’, ‘misleading headlines can lead science astray’, ‘questionable science journalism’ — these are all possible headlines that I have discussed with my co-author for this piece.
Headlines matter, be it in a science journal or a newspaper. Because it changes the way people read an article and how they remember it. Here lies the main fundamental difference between scientists and science journalists. Scientists know that if the title does not reflect their results and discussion, they will be heavily criticised in the scientific community. Therefore, as researchers, they are trained to choose their titles based on facts, precise, and accurate that convey the broader picture of research. On the contrary, science journalists select their headlines that are captivating and feed public interest. It works quite well as mass people do not care about details, often they do not even read a full article and if they do, they would forget everything but the headline within a few days.
A group of scientists from the biochemistry and molecular biology department in the University of Dhaka, for an example, used the RT-LAMP kit for the detection of SARS-CoV-2. This is a commercial kit and a well-established detection method for RNA and DNA. The advantages of this technique is that it is less time-consuming and does not require sophisticated machines such as the RT-PCR. It can be carried out in a simple heat block which is easily affordable and, under the current circumstances, will definitely accelerate the number of tests in Bangladesh.
However, this technique has its own shortcomings as it is not as sensitive and specific as the RT-PCR. This group adapted the technique for the detection of SARS-CoV-2, which has also been reported lately by several other scientific groups. Adding to this, as that research team said, it requires more optimisation and validations before it can be used on a larger scale.
Soon after, several media outlets reported, ‘DU scientists invent coronavirus detection kit that works in 30 minutes’. It looks good for ordinary public and serves the purpose well, but as a matter of fact, the story was shaped and the consequence is that science itself goes astray. A single miswording in the headline made the whole story questionable and despite their efforts for the greater cause, this team is now criticised by many which is unfortunate.
So, the relationship between scientists and journalists would be a tough one. And this is not only in Bangladesh, but all over the world. Recently, a lot of attention has been given to the fact that science journalism is often considered inaccurate. This, of course, is, from the point of view of scientists who assume that journalists would simply transcribe what they say. But, in reality, journalists tend to say what the public wants to hear. Here is the eventual gap and this is not acceptable because while science is all about creating knowledge, journalism should be conveying accurate knowledge to the public. Especially in a situation such as the COVID-19 outbreak, science journalists have an utmost responsibility towards society where they should inform and educate the public as both scientists and public educators. They have a professional role, but in the end, they should become the communication bridge between scientists and the mass people rather than obstructing it.
In Bangladesh, science journalism is a whole different story than it is in the rest of the world. Where science journalists from developed countries often come up with ambiguous and misleading headlines intentionally, in our country, in most cases, it happens perhaps out of ignorance. For instance, we have seen a complete misinterpretation of news such as using stem cells to cure cancer. Stem cells are special human cells with the ability to develop into many different cell types. A journalist mistook it with a stem of trees and reported, ‘Now, tree-stems can be used for cancer treatment, scientists say’.
Have I cherry-picked the extreme example? Unfortunately, it is not. It might not be the most common one, but it does fit in well with the actual scenario.
So, where did it go wrong? In Bangladesh, we have seen journalists from different educational backgrounds and their contributions to critical issues. However, reporting scientific topics is entirely different from reporting crimes or share prices. Perhaps, a few weeks’ formal training may get people into journalism, but it needs years of experience and extensive knowledge in science to become science journalists. Therefore, the best initiative would be recruiting people with degrees in science who have at least a minimum understanding or ability to research before writing scientific pieces. I understand the best action may not always be a better approach. It may not be profitable to recruit a dedicated science journalist with decent payment. Given the situation, an effective step would to have scientists write. Scientists in Bangladesh should also voluntarily come forward to reduce this miscommunication.
Journalists and newspapers are considered mirrors of society and the duties they perform are nothing short of heroism. But they have to be careful.
Tariqul Tareq is a PhD candidate at the Pennsylvania State University, USA and Utsho Ali Haider is a PhD candidate at Heidelberg University, Germany.
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