Professor Alberto Mantovani and journalist Mariangela Pira discuss with Bocconi students on how the scientific and journalistic communities reacted to the pandemic and on managing misinformation.
What was the impact of the media on the pandemic? How did the scientific community utilize data and communication technology to connect on a global scale? What is the role of journalists during this unprecedented time?
There were some of the questions that the two guest speakers sought to answer at Tra i Leoni’s event Infodemic: How the News Spread Faster than the Virus, moderated by Mariateresa Maggiolino, Associate Professor of Commercial Law at Bocconi University.
Mariangela Pira is currently an economics journalist in the employ of Sky News Italia, and has a long, distinguished career as a reporter for global affairs for various news agencies. Having studied at Cattolica, Oxford, and ISPI school, Pira corresponded from China, Afghanistan, around Europe, and of course Italy.
Professor Alberto Mantovani is the Scientific Director at the Istituto Clinco Humanitas and principally researches immunology. He is an expert in his field, and is a member of several medical science boards, providing a gravitas to this segment of the scientific community.
Despite the seeming disparity of the careers of these two honorable guests, they both had a common view on the role of information during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pira defines an “infodemic” as an overabundance of information, which is what happened during the first year of the pandemic. Several channels of communication were flooded with interpretations of scientific findings, misinformation, reactions/opinions, and political pandering. Social media, according to Pira, had a particular influence on perceptions on the virus, as platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and even TikTok have the power to amplify negative (and sometimes positive) news.
Speaking from his experience in medical research, Professor Mantovani explained how stunning the sheer volume of studies pouring out of labs, universities, and other scientific institutions was. Several experts around the world worked together to better understand the virus, sharing their data and submitting their findings for peer review. However, despite this global solidarity, difficulty arose when seeking to understand which data was useful and, more importantly, which information was outright wrong. Another problem faced by the scientific community was then communicating their results to general society. As Professor Mantovani stated, “communication ran faster than the virus,” echoing the title of the event.
This pathway between science and the public is where journalism steps in. As a sort of mouthpiece for science, journalists have the responsibility to connect the right information to the people in an understandable, non-jargonistic way, as Pira put it. According to her, journalists have a duty to ensure the way they inform the public does not cause confusion, panic, or other negative emotions. This is especially true for journalists on social media, as posts can spread like wildfire. A good journalist should always start with the numbers from the available data, connecting a characteristic that should be common to a good scientist. However, the average reader will not read the numbers, and instead rely on media outlets to provide them with the knowledge they seek.
This gap in understanding between the general public and the scientists’ examinations leads to a basket-case of problems that profoundly sway social perceptions and political actions. Misinformation has the potential to cause erroneous decision-making on part of the individual and the politician. While the scientific community has a way to effectively remove dishonest or simply bad findings through peer review (or even public denouncements by research societies), it is difficult to perform damage control once misinformation is accepted by the public. There is then the issue of how the government takes in the studies performed by scientists and presented by journalists, which could either lead to effective management of the pandemic, such as in New Zealand, or a chaotic mess, such as the USA earlier last year.
One of the most important themes Pira and Professor Mantovani discussed was on respect. This could come in the form of respect for experts in their fields, which social media users fluctuate on providing; respect for audiences, as they need encouragement and honesty from authority figures; and finally, respect for data. Everyone has the duty to understand the information they consume. It is difficult, yes, but it strongly impacts decision making from the micro-level of the individual to the macro-level of international politics.
Mariangela Pira and Alberto Mantovani, along with the moderator Mariateresa Maggiolino discussed all these matters in depth at Tra i Leoni’s event. They then answered students’ questions before ending the evening. Though the world today is swamped with data, which can be overwhelming, it is still worthwhile to listen to the experts’ thoughts to make some sense of it all.