“You may notice that we got a new goth motto,” Laura Helmuth, science editor at The Washington Post, said at Stony Brook University’s latest “My Life As” event on Monday, Sept. 23.
The Washington Post started sporting the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” in 2017, about a month after Donald Trump was inaugurated into the presidency. It was not a response to Trump or his pointed attacks on the press; the paper had been toying with the idea since 2016 before Trump was the Republican presidential nominee. It may have been, however, a sign that national interest in politics would not be cyclical this time around, as Helmuth predicted when she was applying for her position at the newspaper.
“People’s interest in politics tend to go in four-year cycles,” she said, describing her pitch for the science section. “Pretty soon this election will be over, and we’ll move on to other things, and we can talk about, you know, new discoveries, and space, and black holes, and dinosaurs, and evidence-based health and things like that.”
Helmuth got the job, and the section is covering the science she promised it would. But it’s also doing a lot more “because interest in politics didn’t simmer down,” she explained.
Pointed attacks from the president, who according to Helmuth, has called The Post “the enemy of the American people,” and a growing distrust of the media pushed the paper to start showing its work more. The Post had to adjust to a “new reality when there’s just a lot of information,” Helmuth said.
She pointed out that with science journalism, in particular, journalists have started to recognize that there are not always two sides to every story.
“So particularly with like evolution, we don’t quote creationists,” she said. “With climate change, you can disagree about what to do about climate change, but the science of it is completely, comprehensively proven.”
She added that, in another effort to combat the spread of false information, The Post is also working to explain the science of misinformation and disinformation, including how it spreads and why it can be appealing. Helmuth referred to the Dunning-Kruger effect as an example, which she defined as “the less somebody knows about something, the more confident they are that they really understand it.”
Politicians, she said, are particularly good examples of this.
False information is dangerous for several reasons, but the science section at The Washington Post takes particular care to address topics that could impact people’s health.
“A lot of what we do, and this is I think what we feel most strongly about is, is how people defend themselves against dangerous quackery information that is not just wrong but potentially damaging to their health,” Helmuth said.
She pointed to the anti-vaccine movement as an example. Vaccine skepticism was launched into prominence when a 1998 study suggested that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism and bowel disease. The journal that published the study formally retracted it in 2010 after it was found that the lead scientist was paid to find evidence supporting litigation from parents who believed that vaccines harmed their children.
But the damage was done. And the media craze that accompanied the study launched it into the public eye.
The Health and Science section at The Post, in an effort to combat decades of misinformation, started running a video series called “The Vaccines Project” in early September. The first episode examines 200 years of vaccine skepticism, while the second explains what they’re composed of and the third analyzes their safety.
The series is especially relevant now, as now more than 20 years later, the U.S. risks losing its measles-free classification and the World Health Organization lists vaccine hesitancy on a list of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.
However, even when her section actively reports against disinformation — such as with its vaccine series — sometimes the real battle is with search engine algorithms.
“A lot of what I think about as an editor is how do we make our real health and science stories based on evidence, based on legitimate reporting, based on honest interviews and clear evidence — how do you compete with the nonsense in the world?” Helmuth asked.
Basically, they need to make their “information as interesting as misinformation,” she added.
One way the science section has started doing this is with a series of stories called “Medical Mysteries,” which follow the same formula as a mystery novel. Some titles include, “‘My entire scalp was on fire’: A doctor repeatedly insisted she had a tension headache. Something more serious was going on.” and “‘Maybe you’re just someone with blood in their urine’.”
Lists, according to Helmuth, are also popular.
“You can get people to read just about anything if you say the top 10 of whatever,” she said.
And sometimes stories are “just so likeable and awe-inspiring” that people click on them anyway, she added, pointing to stories about the first picture of a black hole in April.
“It was just a reminder that sometimes, you know, people really enjoy the joy of discovery,” Helmuth said.
Though Sean Gribbin, a sophomore journalism major, is not interested in science, he said that he still found the discussion “impactful.”
“I feel that it was important to hear how, like the writing to the science and learning about it in order to, you know, educate people more on what’s going on in today’s modern era and times, is a crucial element, especially in today’s modern climate,” he said.
Harold Kirk, a retired physicist from Brookhaven National Laboratory, said that the lecture taught him that sorting through news and fake news is a “hard task.
“It’s a hard task, and you’ve got to be constantly on your toes and constantly working at it to try and get through the brass,” he said.
Mia Jacob, a graphic designer in the university’s communications department who attended the lecture, also learned about the process of sorting through fake news; she said she learned primarily about “new trends about the transparent reporting and the specific ways in which journalists do that.”
“I love everything she said about being transparent and revealing the process,” she said. “I think scientists should appreciate that and want to have their work explained and justified and presented.”