In our previous editorial, we referred to this fascinating study by analyst Kalev Leetaru, quoted in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. The scientist applied the technique of “sentiment mining” to the New York Times archives from 1945 and 2005 as well as to translated articles and broadcast archives from over 130 different countries. This technology makes it possible to identify the tone of an article by counting the number of words and expressions with positive and negative connotations. The author found that the NYT had sunk into a very low mood since 1990, the “tone” of the news having become increasingly negative: a trend that began in the mid-1970s and that the author also found in the news archives of other countries. As Pinker notes, this finding contrasts sharply with the information we can use to measure human progress. Which leads Pinker to say: “ The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being (…) Almost no one knows about it” and then to speculate that there is a contrast between the long timeframe over which this data was obtained and the immediacy that the media is interested in. The media, therefore, are unable to grasp the “big picture”, the wider view that proves that our society is doing better and what’s more, it does not even seem that this is their intention.
It is true that, in general, the relationship between the media and scientists has become so complex that it is sometimes very strained. This is particularly true in a country like France, with a succession of initiatives led by scientists. In a previous editorial entitled “French Scientists Revolt”, we mentioned two different opinion pieces, each signed by more than forty scientists, who were surprised that the Résolution sur les sciences et le progrès dans la République [Resolution On Science And Progress In The Republic], championed at the National Assembly by deputies Accoyer and Le Déaut, had gone completely unnoticed by the media.
An association like AFIS (Association Française pour l’Information Scientifique [French Association for Scientific Information]) has been campaigning for years to have the opinions of scientists better represented in the media. Its objective is to provide “an insight into social issues that are covered in a pseudo-scientific way and attract misinformation or polemics, particularly around health, new technologies and the environment“. The association will soon be hosting a round table at the prestigious ENS college on the theme Science and the media: who influences who? In a similar, but less subtle vein, the French Association for Plant Biotechnologies was created in 2009 with the aim of “remedying the lack of information and misinformation that has been rampant in France for many years on the subject of plant biotechnologies and their applications...”.
More recently, finally, the Science Technologies Action collective has undertaken to bring together scientists from all disciplines, who state they are “dismayed by the marginalisation of science and the incessant attacks on innovative technologies” and intend “to make the voice of reason, the scientific approach and the voice of progress heard, particularly among political decision-makers and the media”.
These examples show how vigorously scientists are campaigning for quality scientific information, and the urgent need to improve their relationship with the media. But France is far from unique in this matter. In Great Britain, a movement like InSciOut based at Cardiff University is studying relations between scientists and the media in order to improve them.. However, as we well know, the cliché that there’s no news like bad news is persistent and scientists sometimes struggle to find the right tone. However, the media themselves are not immune from being called into question, and, with the help of new technologies, innovation can also influence editorial formats. Hence the creation of websites to address the numerous hoaxes and other kinds of “fake news”.
Video, for example, can be a perfect medium for popularising science. Many scientific You Tubers have launched channels to broadcast insightful scientific information to a wide audience – with notable success. In the USA, the Vsauce blogger has over 13 million subscribers, MinutePhysic has 4 million and VlogBrothers over 3 million. In France, the E-penser channel will soon hit a million subscribers. All these talented presenters, mostly scientists by training, offer us hours of programming in which they revisit the major basic principles as well as topical issues in science, some with a touch of humour, which makes the popularisation all the more enjoyable.
As we have already mentioned, Facebook is a particularly prolific social network in terms of scientific information, even if we do need to take care to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are now excellent sources such as, for example, the Today I Watched page, dedicated to unmasking fake scientific information prevalent on the web by means of short presentations. For example, in the video “Vaccines don’t cause autism” , in just five minutes the authors cover the story of the publication, in 1998, of an article in Nature by the British doctor Andrew Wakefield, and trace the development of one of the biggest pseudo-scientific rumour mills of recent years. Another video shows why the earth is round and cannot be flat, debunking one of the “new” beliefs that has recently spread like wildfire on the net.
Finally, in the tradition of the legendary Hoaxbuster site, which for years has been unmasking the hoaxes and fake news that flood the web, the traditional media have begun to innovate as well, and to offer solutions to Internet users for verifying the information they find on the web. This is how the newspaper Libération came to set up the Check News website. Amongst other things, the latter made it possible to flush out false news related to Linky meters. Stéphane Lhomme, an anti-nuclear and anti-electromagnetic radiation activist, announced that the technology in question was the cause of a death. To provide answers for internet users, journalists carried out an investigation and were able to demonstrate that this was not the case: while a fatal fire had indeed taken hold in a house equipped with a Linky meter, the meter was not the cause of it. Moreover, a similar demonstration took place on the same site on a further occasion
While these three examples of innovative communication formats will not be enough in and of themselves to transform the complicated relationship between scientists and the media, they still offer some exciting opportunities. First of all, scientists now have all the tools they need to maintain a direct relationship with the public and to do their own popularisation work without necessarily going through the traditional media. Secondly, the competition between old and new media seems to have resulted in an improvement in the quality of scientific information, thanks to efforts in going “back to the source” on the part of journalists who want to gain credibility.
Who said that no news was good news for scientific information?
 “And among the things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different time lines. The news, far from being a “first draft of history”, is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition (in earlier times, the day before ; now, seconds before. Bad things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the new cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase of life expectancy.” Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now, p.41. Viking
“We are a collaboration between scientists and journalism academics studying how science gets reported in the press and the processes that create misunderstandings and exaggerations. We focus on areas relevant for human health – biomedical and social sciences. We have carried out a large study to build a better evidence-base of where things go right and where things go wrong in the chain between published peer-reviewed studies, press releases and news reports. We are following this up with laboratory and online research on how readers understand or misunderstand different phrases and also collaborating with press officers to study actual press releases in the real world.”
It’s also interesting how this kind of site can create a direct link between journalist and reader, for example ‘Hello, you asked us this question which we’ve shortened to “Hi, I’ve got a question about Linky” Has Linky really already caused the death of two people as I read on Stéphane Lhomme’s website? (http://refus.linky.gazpar.free.fr/incendies-linky.htm)” (…) As for the second alleged Linky death, a judicial expert’s report found that the meter was not to blame according to “L’Est Eclair” : “Everything suggests that the fire broke out at the extension cord which was found hanging loose,” he says. Sincerely, Emma Donada”