Science journalism and why it matters for democracy
JEFFERSON LYNDON D. RAGRAGIO
Part of the success of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, a 2021 film about astronomers warning the public of an impending destruction of the Earth, is its ability to highlight the way the commercially restrained media deflect the threat of climate crisis.
In a scene where astronomer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his PhD student (Jennifer Lawrence) are on a popular television show trying to explain the gravity of a 9-kilometer comet hitting the planet, the hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) instead poked fun at the astronomer’s revelation, forcing Lawrence to angrily interrupt the indifferent conversation between the hosts, who then responded by simply saying “Well, that’s just something that we do around here. We just keep the bad news light.”
The film hits home and calls for more timely discussions about taking science-based work seriously, stressing the need to getting familiarized with science-related stories that have wide-ranging implications on society.
Why science journalism matters
Science journalism or the practice of reporting on science-related stories has been with us for quite some time. We say “practice” because science journalism needs dedicated journalists and reporters who have the ability and passion to humanize (not only simplify) complex scientific data published by scientists and technical experts, and which are aimed at educating different sets of publics, especially the marginalized.
By scientific data, we mean findings or bits of information that are backed by authoritative and rigorous efforts, and which can impact the way the publics interpret the things around them. Nationwide surveys made by universities and polling bodies are one concrete example of such data, as these are conducted in a methodical and empirical fashion.
In the context of science journalism, there is more to surveys and opinion polls that must be thoroughly explored.
Think of COVID-19, more frequent and intense environmental calamities, and disinformation on social media. These are certainly multifaceted and partly interconnected tragedies that rekindle our long-lost desire to appreciate the value of science and facts.
In other words, we should be able to identify the science behind the what’s and why’s of the social dilemmas we face. Although falsely proclaimed by political leaders no less, science reporting should help us debunk that gasoline can be used as a disinfectant for face masks and hands, that climate crisis is a hoax, and that any oppositional and critical voices are part of the so-called fake media.
Particularly in the Philippine media, science is one news beat that remains under- and misrepresented.
It’s underrepresented and misrepresented as we have yet to see a move to consistently mainstream science news in our national consciousness. With the exception of devastations caused by typhoons or landslides and the typical government-centered reporting on scientific achievements, stories that are equally compelling such as efforts by agriculturalists, farmers, and fisherfolk, and major studies by marine scientists and social scientists rarely get the media space it deserves.
There is of course a string of issues that contributes to obstacles hounding science journalism, such as fewer numbers of full-time journalists covering science stories, the difficulty of journalists in finding experts who are willing to work with them, and the balancing of commercial interests considering that science is not so much of a sexy beat. The raging polarization of information online and off further diminishes the already limited appeal of science to media and the publics.
Democratic media and the publics
Science journalism is one practice that puts the publics at the center of media. This means that the humanized and people-centered reporting of media must get across and better yet engage the publics they wish to educate.
As part of the grand vision of the Philippine media being a democratic watchdog for the publics, it is in a central position to help us better recognize the many complicated dimensions of science, as well as expose the loopholes and anti-science perspectives, say in the pronouncements of politicians and the powers that be.
The watchdog role of media complements the mantra of science journalism in keeping the publics circumspect enough to make informed judgments in times of health pandemic, climate crisis, disinformation warfare, and elections.
While the Philippine media ecology is plagued by a host of problems, including the tendency of some news media outlets to embrace state propaganda or stenographic reporting where State officials and their lackeys are the sole sources of science reporting, collaborative fact-checking, and yes, strengthening the journalistic coverage of science-related stories in Manila, provinces, and rural communities are part of the initiatives that can renew the democratic function of media.
Although it may take a while for us to appreciate the tenets of science journalism, we must be able to support independent media that espouse science in the work they do. This is a small step but one that is in the right direction. – Rappler.com
Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio is an assistant professor at the College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines Los Baños. He has a PhD in media studies from Hong Kong Baptist University. He tweets @JeffRagragio.