Why scientists should help the media make sense of Covid-19

EUPRIO’s annual conference in Trieste, which was due to open on 30 August, has been postponed until next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic – but its theme of “Science communication: how to engage nowadays” could not have been more relevant.
The University of Edinburgh

While EUPRIO members will have to wait until August 2021 before meeting again face-to-face for their next annual conference, there are plenty of excellent case studies illustrating how scientists at European universities have risen to the challenge of public and media engagement during the coronavirus crisis.

Edd McCracken, head of news at Edinburgh University
Edd McCracken, head of news at Edinburgh University

Here we find out how experts at one longstanding university member of EUPRIO in the United Kingdom – which won a 2016 EUPRIO Award for its approach to media training of academics – have seized the chance to put science in the front seat when it comes to public discourse about the impact of the virus and get their researchers to fully engage with the media.

Edd McCracken, head of news at Edinburgh University Edd McCracken, Head of News at the University of Edinburgh, believes higher education communication professionals should not hold back in celebrating how their scientists and other experts have helped to make sense of a world that has been turned upside by the coronavirus outbreak.

Media work a daily routine

In a blog for the Scottish university’s Bulletin staff magazine, titled Adaptation & Renewal: Expertise in the time of Covid, Edd says it has become part of the daily routine of the pandemic and slow easing of restrictions to turn on TV, tune into a radio station, open a newspaper or read an online article and come across a University of Edinburgh expert providing some insight of the coronavirus. “Among many other things, they have explained the biology of the virus, the efficacy of public health measures, the impact on refugees and minority groups, the need for green space and exercise in lockdown, the political fallouts, and the economic havoc.

Edd McCracken, head of news at Edinburgh University

“This commentary and insight led to tens of thousands of appearances in the world’s media, from major players such as the New York Times, the BBC and Al Jazeera to smaller, regional media outlets in the likes of Namibia and Bolivia,” he says. Among the media stars to come out of the COVID-19 crisis is Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health at the Usher Institute, who has become a regular feature on everything from the main independent TV programme, Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan and the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to giving evidence in front of Parliamentary select committees.

Being heard amid the pandemic din

Edd used his staff magazine article to chat to Professor Sridhar and other scientists who had made the Edinburgh one of the ‘go to’ places for journalists seeking an expert to be heard amid the din of the pandemic. 

Devi Sridhar, Edinburgh University’s Professor of Global Public Health
Devi Sridhar, Edinburgh University’s Professor of Global Public Health

Professor Sridhar explained: “The public want clear, data-driven information to help them make sense of this crisis and to help understand the new studies and data that comes to light. Experts play a hugely important role in communicating with the public so that they can understand better the situation and the role scientific advice plays in government policy.”

Several of those Edd interviewed described talking to the media during such critical times as “an obligation”, especially where there was confusion in the public debate over things such as the wearing of face masks or the contract tracing apps.

Dr Claudia Pagliari, senior researcher from the Usher Institute specialising in eHealth, says: “Rather than remaining within our ivory towers trying to chase the next paper or research grant, crises like COVID-19 call for us to reach out and be engaged in the public discourse, to work with policymakers and to offer our own views in open forums. “I’ve been encouraged by the willingness of experts to work together and share their ideas during this crisis and hope it continues to change the research culture from ‘me’ to ‘us’. We are public servants, after all.”

Providing answers

Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease, agrees. “As experts in infectious diseases and public health, we can provide answers to some of those questions,” she says. “We can explain – in accessible language – what the virus is, how it works, how our bodies respond, how we might ameliorate the damage, and how to analyse the wealth of data that is emerging.”

Nasar Meer, Professor of Race, Identity and Citizenship, says: “Publicly funded research comes with the obligation to make knowledge public, and this is true of normal times as well as those of crisis,” he says. “There are clear errors and oversights in the UK government’s understanding but also handling of the crisis, yet they have proceeded undeterred even when this has been pointed out to them,” he says. “So, it is important for researchers to provide a corrective as a matter of record but also as a basis of the possible strategy to do things better.”

A degree of bravery

Dr Pagliari admits it does require “a degree of bravery” in overcoming the obstacles in steering the debate in the media and swaying politicians and warns that experts must be ready for unpleasant reaction on social media when they give their opinion on controversial topics. But it is worth it if it helps the public gain a better understanding of what is really going on.

Professor Rowland Kao
Professor Rowland Kao

Professor Rowland Kao, Chair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at the Roslin Institute, is one of many who has found the past several months encouraging. “It’s the first time in my lifetime that I’ve seen the interest in science be so high and for such a prolonged period,” he says. “This will undoubtedly fade, but it is heartening to know that, in times of uncertainty, there are still so many people who look to the science to help to provide answers. We aren’t always able to give these of course, but what we can do is provide an understanding of the ‘why’ of COVID-19, and not just the ‘what’.”

Being comfortable talking to journalists

Edd says Edinburgh’s internationally recognised strengths in life sciences and public health, areas of expertise that have been in great demand during the COVID-19 crisis, made it an obvious port of call for media covering the pandemic. “But it’s one thing to have the expertise, it’s another to have experts that are willing to and comfortable with talking to the media. “Having many seasoned academics in this regard helped encourage those new to media engagement. Several of our experts have also been very effective in using social media, which also attracted the media’s attention.

“And then the press office pulled together and quickly refocussed how it works to promote the expertise and the COVID-19 research the University is undertaking. It’s been an intense few months – the press office has never been busier. But it has been incredibly satisfying,” says Edd.

Main photo shows the quad at Edinburgh University. Pictures from University of Edinburgh + Read Edd McCracken’s full article here, with more advice on what experts need to consider before they plunge head-first into media engagement

Nic Mitchell, EUPRIO Honorary Member, freelance journalist

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