WEF's 'science journalism' event shows power of COVID data

In many respects, this is what WAN-Ifra does best. With no opportunity for landmark events such as the IfraExpo, the group is getting down to the 'nuts and bolts' of journalism with events like today's WEF Science in the Newsroom event.

Supported by Singapore's Temasek Foundation, and with help from the International Science Council and Quest, the event continues tomorrow (Tuesday) with two more 90-minute sessions. Attendance free, but you need to register.

We're not talking about clicks and subscriptions - though this usually follows - but of the public service element and how to make it work for audiences.

This was the message from the softly-spoken Shirish Kulkarni, and it was repeated by all the other speakers.

"Journalism is an emergency service, and all those extra clicks were emergency calls," said Kulkarni, an award-winning journalist whose 'journalism is for citizens, not for journalists' message drew enough social media attention recently for at least one fan to decorate her notebook with the message.

His seven "building blocks" were to make content full and informed, and "reconsidering" the use of politicians if they're not needed; delivering context, rather than just breaking or 'moving' news; becoming an agency is about ways to give citizens power; avoiding "horribly old-fashioned" tone; the need to hear and reflect different perspectives; and the need for transparency, to be clear about why we're reporting and what we don't know.

That's six... and Kulkarni is also emphatic in his view of the importance of 'narrative', adding that "we're hardwired for stories". No matter that he credits 'the telegraph' for the news journalism's functional inverted-cone format - he calls for a linear style, and adds that information is "more important than the angle.

"Journalism is a service, and we're here to meet the needs of citizens," he says.

A question about who's getting it right is the perfect segue to the Financial Times, and FT data journalist John Burn-Murdoch, who just happens to be the next speaker.

The Englishman who says he used to be known as the 'death charts guy', admits delivering good work does drive traffic, as does listening to readers' comments.

"Traffic rocketed when we published charts, about the same time as we took down the paywall," he said. But with increased engagement from visual journalism, the FT found it was winning subscribers anyway, with the conversion rate higher than for regular content.

"Using charts allows people to dig into the data themselves, and we found it was important to respond to user feedback - even if you disagree - with a separate email hugely helpful."

Burn-Murdoch stressed the focus on simplicity and clarity, and said the use of eye-tracking showed text was critical in guiding the reader.

"The best journalism also means digging for better data," he added, citing the example of Ecuadorian statistics that "didn't add up", and were supplemented by inhouse research from sources such as doctors and coroners' data. The government then followed," he says, "and we're now doing this for a dozen other countries."

Burn-Murdoch says the projects attracted a far more diverse audience to the FT, and "demonstrated more about us, that we do care. People subscribed even though they didn't have to."

He told a delegate that a team of between seven and ten worked on COVID visual data projects - "probably three to four data journalists, and the same number of web developers help make interactive charts, supported by another dozen or so others."

Some brought skills, and others learned on the job, he said, mentioning the advantage of coding in collaboration is that everyone can run a single script.

Alet Law, newsletter and engagement editor at trusted South African mobile site News24 told how hard it had been to get the human stories behind the pandemic numbers.

"The first woman to die shocked the country, and you'd think it would be easy to find who the victims were, but there were limits what our journalists could do and people weren't necessarily willing to talk," she says.

"We wanted to place people at the centre."

Two projects - a 'remembrance wall' of tributes, and a feature on the 'everyday heroes' of the lockdown helped change things. "It was a profound moment for our coverage, and brought it back to our core purpose," Law says.

"The lessons from these are that human stories are there, and the payoff is enormous."

Having already covered SARS 17 years ago, South China Morning Post China editor Josephine Ma found herself in the centre of things, right at the start of COVID-19.

The first story - about a 'mystery pneumonia' infecting Wuhan city - appeared on December 31, 2019. "It was calm, but then infections came much faster," she says. The Hong Kong paper - which has a reputation as a China-watcher - reported the breakdown of the medical system three weeks later, and journalists needed to get out of the city as the lockdown was introduced.

"People were struggling," she says. "First we tried to find out what had happened, and then I was telling a colleague how to protect herself. Medical staff were too busy to talk or even care for dead, and there were lots of information gaps. We started hearing of cases people travelling from China (with COVID) and wondered why no cases were being reported in Shenzhen and Shanghai. The government denied at first, but after our reports, local governments started reporting."

The SCMP reported that 'at least 500 medical staff were infected', to have it confirmed a few days later. "It was one of the exclusive stories from our investigations," Ma says, explaining that the Chinese definition of 'confirmed case' had excluded asymptomatic cases until the end of March. "One third of confirmed cases were pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic," she says.

Comparisons and context were difficult, with aggregate figures not published, but the SCMP has been successful with two comprehensive reports. One, explainer about 'Disease X' was published in late February, reporting a World Health Organisation prediction from 2018 and including witness accounts with information from mainland Chinese media and a scientific background.

A report about the risks involved with labs handling dangerous viruses was published in September.

Putting the public interest first, collaboration, extensive research, and tapping the experience and expertise of the inhouse team meant the SCMP got a lot of clicks, she says, adding in response to a question, that using simple words and visual explainers was important.

Earlier contributions came from Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness department director Sylvie Briand, Carlos Gonçalo das Neves of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, and Oxford University honorary fellow Denise Lievesley, with moderator Salma Khalik, who is the Singapore Straits Times' senior health correspondent.

Lievesley said we should expect "a lot of analysis of how governments have done, by using statistics. What isn't collected tells you a lot about the priorities of governments."

Data must be both trustworthy and trusted, and politicians sometimes sought to distort results and produce 'alternative facts'.

She had comments and quotes to feed every good journalists' natural scepticism, including David Boyle's 'When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure'.

"It's really valuable for journalists and scientists to work together," said Lievesley, who is looking for funding for a science media centre.

The Summit continues tomorrow (Tuesday) with two more free 90-minute sessions. Details here.

Peter Coleman

Pictured (from top): Josephine Ma, John Burn-Murdoch, Shirish Kulkarni, and Denise Lievesley

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