Rapid reaction: Science Media Center Germany and its response to the COVID-19 outbreak

Rapid reaction: Science Media Center Germany and its response to the COVID-19 outbreak

Author: Irene Broer – Leibniz Institute for Media Research | Hans Bredow Institute, Germany

This contribution offers an ethnographic account of the editorial response to the COVID-19 outbreak by the Science Media Center (SMC) in Germany. SMCs are intermediary organizations that operate between science and journalism by providing summaries and expert statements on scientific publications and controversial science topics. SMCs have been established in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Germany and Taiwan. Despite their potential impact on the journalistic portrayal of science, however, they have so far received little empirical investigation. Given that public crises may transform the communicative relationships between actors in science communication, intermediary organizations like the SMC provide important perspectives on COVID-19 communication.

Ethnographic data was gathered during a 4-week fieldstay in January 2020 which coincided with the outbreak of COVID-19 in Germany. It includes interviews, field notes of editorial meetings and chat logs, as well as SMC publications. The analysis shows how the newsroom staff grappled with the scientific uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 while simultaneously dealing with acute journalistic demands for conclusive expertise. This process was marked by the gradual recognition of the outbreak as a public crisis, an adaptation of editorial routines, practices and formats and a consolidation of the organization’s self-perceived mission.

Five core findings will be presented: 1) How anticipatory routines including gatewatching and expertise-gathering helped SMC Germany prepare for a swift response; 2) How the right moment for coverage was decided through a continuous process of relevance assessment by weighing the lack of available scientific knowledge against rising media attention; (3) How new communication strategies helped SMC Germany respond to the rapidly changing insights about the virus; (4) How SMC Germany adapted its publication formats in order to keep up with journalistic demand; and (5) How the COVID-19 outbreak worked to highlight SMC Germany’s role as a knowledge broker in the science communication landscape.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Transformation