UK news outlets’ resilient and innovative responses to the messiness of Covid-19 data and science provide vivid evidence against the stereotyped image of journalism as a number-phobic, statistically incompetent profession, according to a new report by Bournemouth University, the Royal Statistical Society and the Association of British Science Writers.
The report – built on reflective presentations and discussions of twenty-four senior scientists, statisticians, journalists and media scholars at the BU-hosted Coronavirus, Statistical Chaos and the News Symposium last month – details how journalists have dealt with the many epistemic and practical challenges posed by the complexity and uncertainty of Covid-19 facts and figures.
“Covid-19 has brought data and statistics to the centre of daily life and daily news like never before,” said BU’s Associate Professor An Nguyen, the lead author of the report.
“In March 2020, as the exponential virus loomed large into an existential threat, an influx of numbers that would normally stay within the domain of specialist expertise suddenly occupied the physical and cultural space of the lockdown family.”
With that, however, came a statistical chaos that continues, albeit to a lesser extent, today. As they become so crucial, Covid-19 data have been subject to a rather fierce battle between different frames and narratives.
“Due to the vast uncertainty around the novel virus, we have seen scientists not only disputing with each but also competing with religion, culture and, most importantly, politics,” said Dr Nguyen. “Amidst much public confusion, anxiety and fear, numerical misinformation and disinformation seem to be everywhere on social media.”
British journalism – or at least a substantial part of it – has navigated the chaos rather well to identify patterns and to bring order out of the disorder, said Dr Nguyen.
“In many instances, data journalists facing of the short supply of rigorous data have turned themselves into data scientists, working on highly complicated and innovative projects that have been applauded and/or used by health authorities, academics and possibly big tech firms.”
Nguyen went on to emphasise the independent thinking power, resilience and creativity that many journalists have brought into their day-to-day job of questioning, scrutinising and communicating Covid-19 data to the public.
The report offers a series of takeaways for journalists to bring into the short- and long-term future of data, health and science reporting, including the following:
- Be sophisticated with data. Numbers do not simply speak for themselves and should not be taken at face value.
- Respect your audience. Don’t assume that the public at large is not capable of understanding data and uncertainty. They can if they want to.
- “Geo-customise” data to make them personally relatable. Scaling the data down to users’ local settings and making them easy to use helps news outlets to engage audiences.
- Humanise the data. Data and science reporters need to listen to other modes of pandemic explanation and to leave room for emotion, empathy and persuasion.
- Treat scientists as scientists. Be sure to put them in the right seat. Don’t let them talk out of their specialist area. And don’t “force” them, consciously or subconsciously, into taking side.
- Make more use of local health professionals’ expertise. Garner their expertise more frequently to tap into their superb but less well used expertise in testing, tracing, isolating and looking after patients.
- Use science-journalism intermediaries such as the Science Media Centre. Despite general controversies around its model, the SMC seems to have been a critical helping hand in connecting journalists with the right experts in the midst of politicised uncertainty.
- Collaborate with other newsrooms. This can conserve newsrooms’ resources and amplify the impact of their work beyond their own reach, ultimately for the public good.
- Tap into the power of citizen science. Data crowdsourcing was identified as a promising tool for science journalism.
The report also identifies a potential positive legacy of the pandemic, namely the heightened professional and commercial case for newsrooms to invest more in science, health and data reporting expertise.
“Journalism as a whole is not in a good position to deal confidently with statistics yet,” it says.
“The pandemic – with many simple mistakes made by those with no specialist expertise in dealing with data and science, especially political journalists in the early stage – highlights rather than belittles the need for more statistical expertise among journalists.”