Ever since the outbreak of the swine flu pandemic in 2009, researchers and more specifically, the World Health Organisation (WHO) have concerned themselves with various other strains of influenza and the possibility of a future pandemic. One such strain named the ‘Asian H7N9’ has been highly popularised, especially among media coverage online. Using a citizen science project carried out by the BBC, named, ‘BBC Pandemic’ and an online news article from the Daily Mail titled, ‘Just THREE mutations are needed to make bird flu a potential pandemic strain that could kill millions, experts warn’, this paper aims to analyse and compare how these different mediums and ownerships affect what is being communicated and further consider how each medium affects the accessibility of such information.
In many media outlets, such as the Daily Mail, what is classified as scientific articles mainly surrounds topics in medicine and health. (Dunwoody, 2008) This is undoubtedly true when considering the news article I have chosen, as the focus is on explaining, written in the title, a ‘potential pandemic strain’. Although, the norms this medium follows are much more journalistic than scientific. The article rarely explains in great detail, the organisations and people where their information is obtained from, predominantly stating just “scientists” and “researchers”. Furthermore, the methodologies used are discussed in little detail, making the article somewhat unscientific.
These scientific weaknesses are due to the fact that articles in the journalistic domain are predominantly ‘episodic’ (Dunwoody, 2008), which means that journalistic articles produce shorter stories that are quicker and easier to read for the laymen of the public. Behind this ‘episodic’ journalism follows a rapid pace of media production, extremely different to that of a scientific journal or citizen project. The downfall of such a rapid pace of media coverage specifically in this article, are the typos. For example, one such typo, in the heading, “The 1919 flu outbreak – the world the world has ever seen”, suggests that little or no peer-review was carried out before publication. The lack of review poses potential imperfections for the information presented to the public, which is further shown in the article’s title, exaggerating the WHO’s and other organisation’s fear of the H7N9 strain. The article’s title is fallible, as subsequent data provided by the NHS demonstrates that in reality, the chance for all three mutations to occur are “relatively low” (NHS, 2017). However, as Sharon Dunwoody (2008) explains, science journalism, like much of traditional journalistic norms, utilises titles that are “attention-getters” (p.19), making the laymen choose to read such an article describing a future pandemic which could “kill millions”, purely because it captivates their attention.
Comparatively, the BBC citizen science project does not fall under Sharon Dunwoody’s (2008) ‘journalistic norms’. Instead, the data received from the public for the application will be given to a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, (Peck, 2017) which undoubtedly presents more expertise and potentially better peer-review than that of the online article. However, from figures 1-3 in the appendix, the explanation communicated to the public is extremely vague and rather ambiguous. By just stating that one of the “immediate threats to our species is a global pandemic”, one does not gain much information about how immediate this threat is, and what kind of pandemic could take place, could it involve the H7N9 strain like the online article suggests? Thus, while the medium of a citizen science project is a good example of attempting a ‘dialogue model’ in the public understanding of science (PUS) because it involves “public engagement in practice”, (Lock, 2011, p.26) the ambiguity that underlies in communicating and explaining the reason behind requiring data from the public, could suggest that this rhetoric of citizen science is more akin to the ‘deficit model’ as the citizen is “ignorant” (Bauer, 2009) about what their data will be used for. Furthermore, looking at figure 4, the vagueness in communicating what ‘research’ will occur with their data, could prevent certain people from the public to agree to ‘continue’ with the project, purely out of confusion.
Utilising Jeanne Fahnestock’s (1993) work on rhetoric in science communication, it is evident that while the article and citizen science project are seemingly contrary in their composition, their genres of ‘rhetoric’ are comparable, as both mediums display the ‘forensic’ and ‘epideictic’ genres. The article represents some elements of the ‘forensic’ genre as it discusses a lot of technical details within the research on the H7N9 strain, explaining researchers looking into, “the H7, hemagglutinin, a protein on the flu virus surface”, however it becomes ‘epideictic’ as this “technical jargon” (Fahnestock, 1993, p.335) does not continue to the extent that it would in scientific journals or reports. Similarly, the citizen science project can be analysed as ‘forensic’ as one could argue that its data will “argue over the nature and cause of past events”, (Fahnestock, 1993, p.333) in order to simulate the occurrence of a pandemic, but it can also be categorised as ‘epideictic’ in that its final objective, with the eventual TV documentary in 2018 (shown in figure 4), is to communicate science to lay audiences. Overall, both scientific mediums fit better with the classifications of the ‘epideictic’ genre as the main focus for each, is addressing and involving the public in a scientific concept.
Whilst the article is a traditional example of a scientific news item, the citizen science project can also be classified in the same way, as the project involves and engages citizens much like the article, in order to, “bring the public and science closer together” (Irwin, 2003). Moreover, despite the news article providing a deeper explanation of pandemics in relation to the H7N9 strain, the citizen science project focuses on an alternative form of “science education” to “promote the public understanding” of pandemics. (Wiggins & Crowston, 2011) This form of science education could be more reliable in terms of ownership as while the Daily Mail is an extremely popular tabloid, ranked as the second most popular daily newspaper in the United Kingdom according to data from the NRS (2017), it has been widely criticised for its unreliability, often “misreporting a study’s findings, when there’s an opportunity to write an alarming headline” (Butterworth, 2012). As previously mentioned in this paper, the Daily Mail’s use of generating ‘scare stories’ is clear in the article chosen, utilising the clever tactic of poignant words in the title, such as “pandemic”, “kill” and “experts” to entice the public, which compliments research from the Stanford-Poynter eye-tracking study, discovering that our eyes are predominantly fixated on a bold, poignant headline in online newspapers. (Bucher & Schumacher, 2006) Thus, this evidence could suggest that the seemingly ‘unreliable’ ownership of this article, has impacted the validity of the information communicated to the public, linking it more so to the ‘deficit’ model in reference to PUS, because it is not wholly concerned with aiding the public’s understanding of pandemics, its main desire, is that of tabloid popularity.
In relation to the ownership of scientific mediums, the citizen science project can be assumed as a ‘reliable’ source of scientific news because of the BBC, which is rated as the most accurate news source from an Ofcom poll (2015), endorses the project. This classification of reliability with the BBC is further shown in an FAQ discussing the BBC Pandemic app, stating that the content will be wholly “anonymous”, as the app will not give your “name, e-mail, phone number or other identifying information”. (BBC, 2017) In addition, the developers of the app and the researchers from the University of Cambridge and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will only present the context of your content (in the future documentary), at a grouped level, making your personal data unidentifiable. These processes carried out by this scientific medium are extremely professional and standardised, which is essential in any given scientific practice.
However, regarding reviews from the Apple App Store (shown in Figure 5) and my own experience when completing the citizen science project (Figures 6-8), there appear to be some methodological issues with the collection of data. It is apt to mention, that the average review rating of the citizen science app on the App Store was a mere three stars, which does not present the citizen science project as being a “benefit for society”. (Stilgoe, 2009, p.20) Instead, referencing the review in Figure 5, the app was “impractical” because it required you to fill out details on everyone you came into contact with throughout the twenty-four hour period, something extremely difficult to complete, especially if you live in a densely populated environment such as a London, or if you commute on a train. In their review, the individual stated that their inaccurate data “will skew any statistical analysis” which may well be correct, because from my experience, trying to note down everyone I had encountered around my Halls of Residence and University, was met with extreme difficulty, ending my attempt at giving ‘accurate’ data after 20 entries, much less than the true amount of people I had encountered that day.
Therefore, these inaccuracies as described, pose issues with data collection in citizen science, which has been a widely discussed topic as of late; arguing that citizen science “produces poor quality data” (Stilgoe, 2016). Overall, the benefits that this medium of scientific communication offer to the public outweighs the challenges of a radical shift in data collection from traditional scientific methods, something that is still “hard to get right” (Stilgoe, 2016). This citizen science project is essential to help both the scientists and the public “understand how a disease like a pandemic of influenza might spread in the event of a major outbreak” (BBC, 2017) and with the statistics obtained, this will help policymakers set goals to control a future pandemic. Here, one could argue that this citizen science project could make us healthier (Broeder, 2017) as it engages the public on how a pandemic spreads, and raises personal awareness on how to prevent it. In reference to PUS, citizen science enhances the public understanding of science because it is a way to “democratize science” (Bonney et al, 2015), bringing the public into a deeper dialogue surrounding issues of risk and threat in science, much like the medium chosen achieves.
One can further analyse and compare the Daily Mail’s news article and how it affects the communication of pandemics through the comment section. In reference to Steve Miller’s description of the ‘dialogue’ approach in PUS as a “publically inclusive dialogue, discussion and debate about science” (Miller, 2001, p.119) one can argue that the comment section of the news article fuels this element of ‘dialogue’ and ‘discussion’ in this scientific medium, as it allows “direct lines of communication between audience members and both scientists and journalists” (Dunwoody, 2014, p.35). One such example of this ‘discussion and debate about science’ is from a comment left six months ago by OverPopulatedPlanet, discussing whether a major pandemic would be beneficial to tackle our unsustainable growth in population. This comment was met with praise and criticism, emulating a scientific ‘debate’ as while some 36 people ‘up-rated’ his comment, four replies were left, criticising his viewpoint. While this comment does not wholly relate to the topic of the H7N9 virus as the article discusses, the application of discussing pandemics through greater issues such as over-population and sustainability, suggest that the lay audience of this article is understanding and responding to what is being communicated, displaying an effective example of the public engaging with science in some way. Although the citizen science project does not have a comment section, one can link the reviews analysed previously in this thesis as another form of ‘dialogue’ as it provides feedback for the scientists and researchers, which could help improve their application in the future.
The context of the sources, the Daily Mail article and the BBC citizen science project, are distinct in who their intended audiences are, and who, in the public, is excluded from accessing the information they communicate. Primarily, looking at the Daily Mail’s demographics obtained from Statista (2017), it is clear that this news medium is most popular among adults aged 35 years and older and that in terms of social class, readership from the ABC1 social class (upper-middle) was almost double that of the C2DE social class (working-welfare). This, coupled with the newspaper’s right-wing stance on politics, could infer that their articles are intended to communicate to an older middle-class, right-wing audience. With relation to Pierre Bourdieu and his research on the relationship between education and social mobility, the information presented in the news article chosen may better cater to a privately educated individual, as descriptions such as that of “amino acids … bind to human cells” may not communicate well to the C2DE social class of the public, who cannot afford to have a privatised education or personal tutors for the sciences. Thus, the Daily Mail article chosen may exclude the working and welfare social classes of the public, making it a ‘deficit’ account of PUS in this context, as it does not cater to the public as a whole.
While the BBC citizen science project should be considered a prime example of the ‘dialogue’ model in PUS and a true reflection of the improvements in the public engagement with science, its intended demographic may, in fact, exclude a large proportion of the public. As the citizen science project solely functions from a mobile phone app downloaded from an Apple or Android app store, it may well only cater to teenagers and young adults, “as it is commonly believed that older people are uncomfortable with new forms of technology” (Czaja & Sharit, 1998). Furthermore, it could be assumed that many of the individuals who choose to participate in the citizen science project already have an interest or understanding of science, or may even be from a scientific background, therefore not making it wholly representative of the public and not a true reflection of promoting the public understanding of science (PUS) as Wiggins and Crowston (2011) postulated citizen science would do.
Overall, the analysis and comparison of the Daily Mail article and BBC citizen science project have been relatively parallel when considering their contributions to science communication. Both adhere to Jeanne Fahnestock’s (1993) ‘forensic’ and ‘epideictic’ genres in that they propose a rather technical topic but still, aim to aid the public understanding of science (PUS). Aside from some criticisms analysed in this paper, both mediums better complement the Fahnestock’s ‘epideictic’ genre, and the ‘dialogue’ model of PUS, as The Daily Mail article, utilises the comment section to allow for a discussion and debate, and the citizen science project involves citizens through their contribution to data. To conclude, despite these mediums’ shortcomings, they present science as being integrated into our everyday lives (Irwin, 2003) because although the news article could be assumed to adhere more journalistic rather than scientific norms, the ‘episodic’ nature of the pandemic discussion, provides a concise, semi-detailed account of a scientific topic, which could in fact aid in the public’s understanding of pandemics. Lastly, while the citizen science project was met with some methodological issues, the documentary it produces in 2018 will be extremely beneficial for our understanding of pandemics, and would not have been possible without the data collected throughout a 24-hour period, of a laymen’s everyday life.