The right way to make science known, and to bring it into people's lives

May 17, 2023
Valentina Guglielmo
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At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Elisabetta Tola and Massimo Polidoro discuss the importance of talking about science, the difficulties that journalists and science communicators face in accurately conveying scientific information, and what still separates the scientific world from other aspects of social and political life, especially in Italy. right way to make science known, and to bring it into people's lives

Navigating the world of scientific information, recognizing the credibility of sources (whether they are articles, social media posts, or interviews with experts or presumed experts), expanding the audience interested in science, and attributing the proper political, social, and decision-making role to science itself: these were some of the topics discussed at the International Journalism Festival, that took place from April 19th to 23rd in Perugia. It was an opportunity to take stock  of the role of science in society and journalism as a means of scientific information in a context that is becoming increasingly international and where science has also found its place in recent years. Massimo Polidoro and Elisabetta Tola discussed about that in a dedicated session.

«The session with Massimo, along with the one dedicated to information during the COVID-19 pandemic, were designed as opportunities to provide even a non-expert audience with useful tools to navigate the world of information», tells Elisabetta Tola, science journalist and ENJOI coordinator. «To learn how to select reliable sources, first of all, and also to develop a critical mindset when information becomes too opinion-based or too closely tied to the personality of the source».

It is a problem not only for those who read science but also for those who have to tell, explain, and above all contextualize it. In Italy, the home country of the two speakers, there is a strong distinction between the world of information that deals with politics, work, daily life, and even health—which often overlooks the fact that science underlies each of these topics—and the world of those who do and communicate science. Science is still perceived as something distant from people's lives. The big step that needs to be taken, therefore, concerns the mutual integration of these worlds. Science is one of the lenses through which we can choose to observe and describe the world, and as such, it needs to be integrated with the others. For this to happen, however, it is necessary that awareness also comes from those who are increasingly required to talk about science – but who have no specific expertise or tools.

«Journalism schools in Italy do not include any scientific topic among the requirements in order to pass the final exam», says Tola. «And most professionals who are trained in journalism do not come from a scientific background, nor do they show curiosity or interest in these topics. I find this deeply outdated and, I must say, in many ways concerning».

The importance of the social, political and psychological context when talking about science

The importance of establishing a close relationship between the scientific, social, political, and psychological contexts has become evident during the pandemic, and it remains paramount in relation to the climate crisis as well. On one hand, it involves the need to make political and social decisions based on the scenarios proposed by science, and on the other hand, it highlights the inadequacy of scientific information itself, which is often decontextualized and, even when correct, detached from the needs and reactions of its audience.


In this regard, during the meeting, the fundamental difference between the roles of a science communicator and a journalist is emphasized, as they are often confused. The journalist—particularly the science journalist—is not a communicator in the sense of being an explainer, but instead, can choose to provide information that is connected to the broader context in which it happens. In this sense, they must be able to interpret and narrate scientific news within the social, political, and historical context.

Tone also matters

The attempt to reassure and oversimplify did not help during the pandemic, neither to communicate the reality of things nor to make people understand how science and research work. It was a serious mistake, since at that time scientific information really did enter every home, several times a day. In the meeting, Polidoro emphasised how the language of the science journalist must remain as factual and anchored to the facts as possible, to make it explicit when one is talking about opinions and when one is talking about data. Data, when reported, should always be able to be verified and reproduced, and should above all be contextualised and used appropriately. 

Telling the process rather than the results

A fundamental aspect, moreover, is that too often science is linked to answers and results. To inform correctly, instead, it is necessary to narrate the whole scientific process and make it clear that science does not provide definitive solutions but is always a work in progress. Acquired knowledge are temporary solutions and are correct as long as they are the best interpretation of reality that can be given under certain conditions.

«That doesn't mean they are wrong, but rather that they can be incomplete», Polidoro points out «Talking about science in terms of questions and answers is not only limiting, but also risks creating false expectations and illusions, as happened during the pandemic. And as a result, when positions and answers change, as naturally happens in the scientific process, people feel disillusioned and betrayed».

The right timing of journalism

Since science is an ongoing process, its timelines rarely align with those of news events or social media. For journalism to be an effective means of informing the public about scientific topics, it should operate on longer timescales and require greater depth of coverage. Furthermore, journalists should have sufficient time to acquire knowledge about the subject they are discussing, consult appropriate sources, and interview competent experts. However, very often—something that happened daily during the pandemic—those providing scientific information do not fully understand it and struggle to manage the language of science, from processes to data, properly.

How to recognise scientific news

Verifying sources and news is also a crucial step. It is a job that journalism cannot do without, but which should also be done by readers, since the channels through which information passes - social media, above all – are now much more numerous and may not necessarily go through filters of expertise. So, how can one obtain reliable information? During the meeting in Perugia, it was mentioned that the first thing to do is to check if there are multiple channels reporting the same news – be it news websites, newspapers, or even social media pages. If that's the case, it is important to reflect on how the news is being presented. If it appears to be copy-pasting from one site to another, it is likely that the information has not been adequately verified and originates from a single, unreliable source. Secondly, it is always advisable to investigate the level of expertise of the person speaking. Make sure, in particular, that the individuals interviewed as experts actually work on the specific topic and are not generic scientists expressing their opinions.


«A good example of the difference is offered to us by climate change», Tola explains. «There are some scientists who still argue that the climate crisis is not anthropogenic, but they are certainly not experts in the field. These people, if they are called upon, speak about opinions and not scientific positions. Those who work on climate and the environment have a basically unanimous position on human responsibilit

Reaching everyone

One last aspect that emerged loud and clear during the festival, and which serves as a framework for everything mentioned above, is the need for science to reach an ever-wider audience. Science communicators working through traditional means (such as newspapers, popular science books, radio shows, podcasts, public lectures, and events) often reach a niche audience: people who are already interested in the subject and often well-informed. The challenge, therefore, is to reach everyone else.

«There are beautiful examples of how science has been able to expand and be embraced by many people, even in different ways depending on the era. The first one that comes to mind is undoubtedly Piero Angela's Superquark, which innovated the way of telling science and brought it into people's homes» concludes Tola. «But not only: today we have numerous graphic novels on scientific topics, science is presented in theater performances like Paolini's, in music, in TV shows and movies like Interstellar, and even in visual arts. Thinking outside the box and choosing less conventional channels to promote scientific information is the right key to reach people who have less exposure to science in their daily lives. It is also important to choose the right way to do it: a way that appeals not only to rationality but also speaks directly to our emotions and awakens our curiosity. For example, telling stories. I am sure that even the most dedicated scientists don't go to bed reading a scientific paper, but prefer a good novel».

Pictures by #ijf23 and Diego Figone

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