How science can quell media hype—By David Roberts
On March 11, 2011, one of history’s most catastrophic tsunamis leveled dozens of Japanese towns and crippled Fukushima’s nuclear reactors. Few will forget watching the water rushing inland and the reactor explosions that followed.
Fewer still will forget the ensuing media-fed radiation fears that had residents fleeing the region, and even prompted a run on iodine pills in places as far away as the U.S. Even months after the initial accident, when accurate information had become available, overblown press coverage of Fukushima remained commonplace.
While radiation’s invisibility and long-term effects may make the Fukushima crisis especially scary, this alarmism isn’t unique to that event. Commenting on the media’s exaggerated handling of the “mad cow” crisis, Financial Times journalist George Parker stated “There is no doubt that the scare was hyped up [in other publications]. Certainly that would be the instinct of most journalists—to hype the story—rather than play a socially responsible (role) in relating issues.” Other examples include the media hysteria surrounding SARS and the long-perpetrated myth that vaccines cause autism.
This is a failure of the current information system, especially during public health crises: sensationalism sells whereas sober, “de-sensationalized” commentary tends to remain on the fringes. Compounding the problem, as newspapers cut their research and reporting budgets, the press has become more sensitized to short-term market forces and journalists are spread ever more thinly.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In times of crisis (including the slow-burning ones like climate change), information (and misinformation) comes in torrents, and the public needs help figuring out what to believe and what it all means. Here in broad strokes is a possible solution.
As a crisis emerges, one or more experts would write jargon-free commentary that is then rapidly disseminated to the public, especially in the affected area. These experts will come from a pre-established network that is credible in the public’s eyes.
Let’s call this the Feynman Network after the brilliant Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman, who had a talent for communicating complex ideas clearly—a gift he famously exemplified by explaining the Challenger shuttle’s fatal flaw using a glass of ice water.
But how would this really work? Let us take a closer look.
To give this Network the necessary credibility, it should be led by scientists and specialists with impeccable credentials and should be under the auspices of a reputable, nonpartisan institution such as a non-profit media outlet like National Geographic, a prestigious science society like the NAS and/or a respectable research university. The Network would comprise established experts who can be called upon to provide credible and timely commentary on issues as diverse as radiation, air and water pollution, earth sciences, contagious diseases, and food safety.
Assisting the Network would be an on-call team of science journalists and risk-communication specialists to help deliver the experts’ message to the public. Crucially, the expert—not the journalist—will be the lead author and therefore accountable for both tone and content. (This is unlike the Science Media Centre, an independent entity that seeks to connect journalists and scientists in journalist-driven news stories.)
The Feynman Network would produce stand-alone opinion pieces that would explain the relevant science simply and help the public sort through the morass of information. As these works represent the author’s point of view they can be produced rapidly in contrast to the slower, consensus-based (and thus more conservative) documents produced by the WHO, IPCC, CDC, etc. To cover disputed issues, the Network could produce several opinion pieces, so the public can learn which issues there is broad agreement on and which remain in debate.
To ensure rapid publication, agreements should be made with popular news outlets to have a dissemination network in place. A useful model is Project Syndicate, where op-eds by Nobel laureates and heads of state are globally syndicated in various languages throughout the world. The credibility of the Feynman Network and its experts would lend the opinion pieces their “newsworthiness” as the public, desperate for a clear understanding of the unfolding situation, would welcome information from authoritative sources—certainly this was the case in Tokyo following Fukushima. For example, an article headlining “Fukushima Is Not as Bad as You Think” might not be considered newsworthy if written by a journalist; but an opinion piece on that subject by a widely recognized expert in the Feynman Network would no doubt draw interest.
This is only the first step, however, as digital tools exist that have the capacity to disseminate information directly to the consumer in an interactive way and may, in the not-too-distant future, bypass traditional outlets for news.
Finally, although this largely virtual Network should not be resource-intensive, the funding structure should nevertheless shield it from some of the revenue pressures driving today’s media to help maintain its integrity. Fortunately, a new funding model with the potential to do just this has emerged over the past several years as visionary philanthropists and well-endowed foundations have invested heavily in public-interest journalism.
Basically, the Feynman Network would meet the great demand for accurate, non-hyped information by tapping the supply of top experts who would no doubt be eager to engage if given the proper outlets and support. This is not a silver bullet; it would by no means supplant journalists’ central role in uncovering stories and holding authorities to account. And even the world’s leading experts can be wrong—in fact, Feynman would be appalled by the idea of blindly following any expert, no matter how well qualified. Ultimately, the public must decide for itself which sources to believe. But the added voices of the world’s top specialists could only help make that decision an empowered one.
David Roberts, Science Adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Japan during the post-Fukushima recovery, was active in academic physics on both sides of the Atlantic before joining the State Department.
A similar version of this column first appeared in The Diplomat in May 2, 2014.