By Katherine Hurst 18/12/2020


“Always expect the unexpected” could be the Science Media Centre’s motto, but 2020 has proven more unexpected than most years.

The novel coronavirus spread through all aspects of the SMC’s work: queries from journalists, media briefings, expert reactions to breaking news, and distributing recent scientific research through the Scimex website. Even the SMC’s Media SAVVY training courses were affected, with several postponed or cancelled throughout the year.

Dacia Herbulock, the SMC’s Director, remembers recognising that the experts were clearly worried, concerned that this could be the pandemic they’d warned of for so many years.

“I have a vivid memory from early January when mention of a ‘novel influenza-like illness in China” cropped up in my inbox for the first time. Something in the carefully worded, formal language of public health surveillance still managed to convey a striking sense of alarm.”

The SMC reacted quickly, and published their first expert comments on the new coronavirus on the 14th January 2020. At first little was known about the virus, and media who picked up the story treated it more as a curiosity than a threat. However as more information came to light and cases began to appear in more countries, the sense of urgency increased, and by the 4th of February they sent out comments on bracing for coronovirus on New Zealand shores. New Zealand’s first case of the virus was identified on the 28th February and from then the intensity increased.

A need for experts

By March, the global pandemic dominated the news, and with every new twist of the virus’ tale there were new questions to be answered. The media needed expert commentary on everything from Covid-19 symptoms to border closures, from genome sequencing to the psychological effects of lockdown. 

From her many years of experience in handling media queries, Dacia says that journalists generally want to talk to one person who can speak confidently on their own area of expertise, but also field questions about the wider context. 

“Audiences don’t want to see the same faces again and again, but there’s a limited number of people who are willing and able to appear in the media. Striking the balance can be difficult,” she says. 

 

The SMC identified early on that a small handful of scientists could be seen responding to an overwhelming share of the surging media demand for information about Covid-19. Experts who were skilled communicators became household names, in particular epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker and microbiologist Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles.

“We knew, heading into lockdown, that this wasn’t sustainable. So we needed to create a way for experts to come together to upskill, stay on top of the emerging science, and support each other to connect more effectively with the media” says Dacia. 

Share the load

The SMC’s solution was to create a panel of Covid experts. Its purpose was to broaden the pool of media-ready researchers across a range of fields: the obvious ones, such as public health, epidemiology and infectious disease modelling, but also mental health, supply chain management, and the needs of Māori and Pacific communities. 

Dacia explains that the idea for a Covid panel arose during a meeting of the SMC’s advisory board on 5 March. The first panel took place on 11 March via Zoom, and involved ten experts. Numbers grew quickly from that point: by 16 March there were 15 experts, and by 25 March there were 51. Through lockdown, there were on average 40 experts dialling in to the fortnightly calls.

SMC Media Advisor Claire Kaplan told me that attending the Covid panel sometimes felt like being in a situation room, and she felt privileged to be able to sit in as people working in many different fields shared information. 

“You think it’s automatic, but it’s not – you don’t appreciate how siloed people can be. What I really loved was, when the experts came together, there weren’t really egos. I was encouraged by the collaborative spirit,” she reflects.

Professor Michael Baker says that taking part in the panel had both direct and indirect effects. It was useful to know who else was commenting, so he could discuss with them and share common experiences. 

“One of the big things is knowing who else you can refer people to if you get queries that are outside your area of expertise. I thought that was really helpful,” he says.

He said another benefit of the SMC’s Covid panel was being able to share recent experiences with the media, and talk about which things had gone well, and not so well. While the panelists were already experienced communicators, there were times when it was handy to be able to strategize over how to deal with misinformation or disinformation. 

“That was an area where it was useful to compare notes about the extent to which you engage directly, or ignore, or pick out particular areas where the information is clearly false – then you can deal with just the falsehoods, by pointing them out in a clear simple way and not getting embroiled in the debate,” he says. 

For Michael, being in a “Zoom room of like-minded people” also had more intangible benefits.

“There was an awareness that there is some solidarity with the science communication sector, everyone’s working very hard, and it’s good to know that you’re not alone. And of course, you know you’re not alone because you just have to listen to any media to know there are other voices out there… but without the panel there wasn’t really a forum or opportunity to see that there were a lot of people, a big critical mass of scientists.”

Michael says that while the outcome might not have been fundamentally different without the Covid panel, he felt that it was an effective tool. He would definitely recommend having similar panels in the future for big events where multidisciplinary science input is likely to be needed for months to years.

The absolute number of Professor Baker’s media mentions has stayed fairly consistent throughout the year (allowing for the peaks which followed each item of breaking news). But as the Covid story progressed, and became a more nuanced discussion, his proportional piece of the pie shrank as the the total amount of media mentions was spread over a larger number of panellists. 

Covid-19 Special Projects

As well as the panel, the SMC introduced a number of other Covid-related initiatives. There were media briefings with experts from various fields, a weekly newsletter tracking the latest research, and a data visualization project with geographer Chris McDowall which showed how New Zealanders moved during lockdown in the three main centres. The SMC helped to link data journalists across multiple media organisations, and provided resources and support through shared communication channels and tools. There was also a special round of the Aotearoa Science Journalism Fund which the SMC supports, from which six Covid-related projects were produced.

 

The SMC and Te Hiku Media collaborated to produce Te Pūtahi, a podcast series which featured interviews with researchers and mātauranga experts and explored Māori communities’ perspectives and concerns. This was broadcast through Te Whakaruruhau National Iwi Radio Network.

By the time the August Auckland cluster was discovered, the news focus had changed. 

“Genome testing put science right at the centre of the debate on whether we needed to go back into lockdown, as opposed to the first wave where we were arguing about things like opening the border,” Dacia says.

Linking journalists to experts

The SMC’s Expert Reactions  – comments from experts sent out to journalists in response to breaking news – proved particularly useful for explaining new or unfamiliar processes and technologies. In fact, the biggest week for ERs was during this second wave.

The SMC responds to individual queries from journalists, and are able to recommend genuine experts in the required field, and they also provide encouragement and support for experts who are fielding media queries. 

Speaking on an Science Communicators Association of New Zealand conference panel on Covid-19 in the media, journalist Eugene Bingham said, “I cannot underestimate the value of the Science Media Centre and their Australian colleagues. The service they provided in not only helping us reach out to experts and suggesting experts, but also sending updates on the latest science was remarkable and extremely appreciated.”

The SMC often deals in abstract things like relationship management – they see where the news cycle is going and try to anticipate what the media will need, and from which experts. Claire says that Covid has provided a crash course for many people in how to communicate science to the media.

“We now have a clear example of the point of what we’ve been aiming for over the last 12 years. There’s more evidence-based reporting, and a new wave of scientists who truly appreciate journalist timelines, and who are more comfortable being the person commenting in public. They see the value of doing a quick interview, then seeing the results the next day,” she says.

For Media Advisor Frankie Vaughan, one of the highlights of the SMC’s Covid-19 response was the “Bubble Comforts” project, where experts gave words of advice for living in lockdown. For Frankie, their willingness and desire to provide comfort in a time of great stress was hugely impressive. 

“We should see experts not just as great brains, but as great hearts.”

 

Looking forward

For the SMC, it has been a busy but rewarding year. From the first inklings that something very serious was on the way, through working from home during lockdown, then through the subsequent smaller outbreaks, Covid-19 has been enormously challenging, but has also validated the importance of the SMC’s essential role in providing trusted information and expertise on complex topics to the media and wider public. The future remains unknown, but the SMC is now better equipped to deal with the unexpected.

Katherine is studying toward a Master’s of Science in Society at Victoria University of Wellington and is currently undertaking an internship with the Science Media Centre as part of her studies.

Feature image: March 11 2020, the first meeting of what would later become the SMC Covid expert panel.