The problem of misinformation after the Covid-19 pandemic

May 9, 2023
Marco Boscolo

And what kind of precautions should science journalists ask themselves when contacting scientists and researchers

In one of the recent posts in the Reference Section of the ENJOI’s Observatory, based on ENJOI’s Media Landscape Research, we highlighted what went wrong with data during the Covid-19 pandemic. And in another one, we discussed how the selection and use of sources have changed due to the pandemic according to’s Global Science Journalism Report. The point is that science journalists, as well as science communicators and researchers, are still trying to understand how Covid-19 has changed the media landscape, affecting well-established work routines and habits.

Are scientists helping or hindering science by correcting misinformation?

Among the topics that often emerge during this kind of discussion is how to deal with misinformation. Professor Dietram Scheufele, for example, asks whether scientists are helping or hindering science when they correct misinformation in the scientific community. Scheufele, who is Professor & Taylor-Bascom Chair at the Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin-Madison, during his talk in the 2023 Science Communication Colloquium organized by his department, argued that “engaging with misinformation to mock, correct it or anything else — you will give it salience”. And salience can be counterproductive. For example, during the peak of the pandemic, when governments were struggling to get people to vaccinate, he noticed that when scientists commented on vaccines not containing live viruses, taking a kind of “don’t worry” standpoint on the issue, concern about live viruses in vaccines went up, at least in the United States. So one question a science journalist or a science communicator should ask themselves when dealing with this kind of topic is whether to give salience or not to a specific piece of information or misinformation.

Stop blaming people for failing to understand science

“By correcting one thing, you may be opening up new battle lines somewhere else,” Scheufele said. And these battle lines, as seen from the researchers’ point of view, are at least in part a novelty that science communicators and journalists have to deal with. He concluded that scientists have a main responsibility in this area of science communication and “we need to stop blaming the public for not understanding the science and not understanding an issue like COVID well”. Scheufele’s main points lead to two take-home messages for science journalists and science communicators:

  • As it results of the aforementioned Global Science Journalism Report, 64% of science journalists take false news into account when producing their stories, but they should ask themselves if this is good practice;
  • Many journalists found that due to the pandemic more and more scientists are more easily available and reachable, but science journalists should be aware that more scientists blaming the ignorance of the public is not necessarily acting in the public interest.

Find out more on the LSC 2023 science communication colloquium: all the talks are freely available on their YouTube Channel.

Picture by Markus Winkler, Pexels

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