Myths, bots and the post-truth age
The 4th European Conference for Science Journalists takes on new media challenges
Inaccurate news can spread across the globe in seconds, gathering clicks and likes and taking on a life of its own. The 4th European Conference for Science Journalists (ECSJ2017) in Copenhagen, Denmark, 26–30 June, will examine what it means to report on science in this post-truth world. “We live in a time where it is easy to create myths,” says Berit Viuf, vice-chair of the Danish Science Journalists’ Association, who helped organise the event. “Social media allows news to spread fast, and for citizens to report directly from the forefront of events.”
New media, one of the main themes of ECSJ2017, presents both opportunities and challenges for science journalists. “The reason is that journalists no longer have a privileged gatekeeper role, as the arbiter of what is news; neither do they have a monopoly in broadcasting to thousands of people,” explains Mike Young, the head social media campaigner of the event. “The breakup of journalists’ gatekeeping and monopoly role is a result of social media, and this development has already taken place.”
New media also allows computer programs known as bots to write articles, threatening science journalism jobs. “The biggest challenge in the future … in my view, is from automation of many of the job functions of current science journalism,” says Young. “Much of the content in our social media feeds comes to us from automated accounts, and it is just a question of time before large segments of in-depth reporting can be automated too.”
What we consider as newsworthy is also changing. The overriding news value for editors is often the number of clicks and shares an article will attract, which can influence objectivity. Thus, analytics-led news can have a major impact on the way science is perceived by the public. “The media are critical to the functioning and survival of democracy because they are the curators of information, informing voters of what is real; the false balance between facts and opinions skews the public dialogue towards extreme views by elevating opinions to the status of facts, and denigrating facts to the status of mere opinions,” says Shawn Otto, author of The War on Science, “The result of this is the public confusion of what is real on any number of politically contentious topics from climate change to public health,” adds Otto.
At ECSJ2017, experts and professionals have the opportunity to discuss the future of science journalism in the new media age and to examine the challenges faced by new media practitioners. Science communicators from almost 30 countries can address a number of challenges in, for example, a session entitled ‘Manipulation of Science in Media’, which tackles threats to science communication in the post-truth world on 29th June 2017.
“One of the taglines we have used is ‘learn from each other’ and we mean that seriously,” says Viuf. She adds, “You can really learn something by meeting colleagues from other parts of the world, and from different environments.”