Lívia de Souza Vieira
Assistant Professor at UFBA and objETHOS researcher

In an open information ecosystem, where people get information directly from sources — some good, some not — journalists should ask how they add value to that flow. That’s exactly what Jeff Jarvis decided to do: in order to amplifying qualified voices during the coronavirus crisis, the professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York created a COVID Twitter list, compiling experts with relevant experiences who are active on social media. With more than 500 names, the list got such relevance that Twitter came to him to get help getting some of these scientists verified. 

Putting the expert’s studies in context is one of the biggest challenges for journalists. “In covering science, journalists have a bad habit of taking the latest word as the final word. We need to present science for what it is: a process of constant discovery”.

In this exclusive interview, Jeff Jarvis gives somes tips on how to find the right expert for each subject, how to report the conclusions of preprint papers without spreading disinformation and also how to cover misleading presidential speeches over the pandemic. “Especially with fact-challenged, authoritarian rulers, we must verify and debunk their claims; we must add context; and we must not normalize their insanity, ignorance, and bad behavior”.

“You will find that a responsible source will say when they don’t know something or aren’t qualified to reply.”

In one of your recent articles, you argue that in an open information ecosystem, journalism doesn’t deliver news anymore; it is delivered already. In spite of that context, that can be seen as a problem to legacy news organizations, you say it is also an opportunity to learn to listen to the public in new ways. Which ways are that?

At CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School, where I teach, I helped develop a new degree in Social Journalism. We do not start by imagining story ideas to attract an audience. Instead, we start by observing, listening to, reflecting, and empathizing with communities to understand their needs and then decide how we can help them with journalism of many forms. 

It is our job to be informed by — and help improve — the public conversation. Thus I changed my definition of journalism to this: “to convene communities into respectful, informed, and productive conversation.” The internet enables that conversation to occur in new ways and provides us with new ways to listen and serve the conversation.

We need to realize that people get information on their own, directly from sources — some good, some not — and we in journalism should ask how we add value to that flow of information. How do we make information more open and transparent? How do we help organize and make relevant information easier for people to find? How do we help people judge the credibility of information? 

All this means that we need to rethink the role of journalism in a new reality. It is not enough to say that we want to preserve and protect what we used to do, especially now, especially in this crisis. We need to recognize the new reality of the net and see how we can add value to communities in new ways. 

In the coverage of this novel pandemic, you also said that it is no longer our job to tell finished stories and that knowledge does not come in the form of a final word but instead as a process, a conversation. Do you think transparency with the community comes up as a relevant journalistic value in this context? How can it be done in practice, in an ethical way?

In covering science, journalists have a bad habit of taking the latest word as the final word. We need to present science for what it is: a process of constant discovery. We need to put the latest study in context of studies that came before and of questions still not answered. It is misleading to write a headline about a single study as if it is a definitive answer. Scientists would never say they know everything they need to know to come to a final conclusion. Why do we?

We are now working in an open information ecosystem. That’s true not just for us common citizens. It’s also true for scientists. In this COVID crisis, it is amazing to see scientists openly share papers, research, and data on so-called preprint services — that is, sites where they can post papers before they have been peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals. This has been an amazing way for scientists to get more information more quickly. Already in COVID, thousands of papers have been posted. Clearly, some of the papers are better than others; some can be dangerous in the wrong hand (like the questionable paper that influenced Donald Trump to push hydroxychloroquine as a treatment). 

What’s fascinating to me is that doctors and scientists are using social media to provide peer review at the speed of the internet. Only hours after one controversial paper about SARS CoV2 antibodies came out, I saw a half-dozen highly respected scientists challenge it, point by point, with data, on Twitter. Scientists have had peer review since the time of Cicero. They adapt to the times and use the tools available. They are using the web to be transparent with their research and data; they are using social media to review research and judge each other; they are also using social media to explain complex findings to the public. 

I celebrate the open internet because it provides a place for the public to have an open conversation and a place to share information. Again, we in journalism need to learn how to add value to that new process. 

Reporting the conclusions of preprint papers is really challenging for journalists that are covering the COVID-19. In order to not make mistakes and bad editorial decisions, what should journalists do?  

I interviewed some scientists about how journalists should be covering the pandemic. They gave me some good rules to work by. When it comes to scientific preprint papers, they said a journalist should never stop at quoting on the author of the paper. The journalist should always seek out the opinions of other scientists with relevant credentials — and today, that is much easier to do online — quoting at least two to three additional viewpoints. They also should provide context about the research that came before and the research still needed. And they should look into the reputation of the authors of the paper and some are better than others. 

“I changed my definition of journalism to this: ‘to convene communities into respectful, informed, and productive conversation.'”

You’ve created a COVID Twitter list, compiling credentials experts with relevant experiences who are active on social media. Why did you decide to do that and what were the most relevant things you discovered in this process? Could you give some tips on how to find experts on Twitter?

In the last media crisis — the one that came with disinformation campaigns helping to elect autocratic rulers in  more than one nation — our weapon was fact-checking. In this pandemic, our enemy is ignorance and our best weapon to fight that — as always — is expertise. I found amazing scientists and doctors talking on Twitter and so I decided to curate a Twitter list of those experts: epidemiologists, virologists, infectious-diseases physicians, geneticists, front-line doctors, public-health officials, and a few science journalists. It has been invaluable to me, being able to see what scientists are reporting, what they are questioning, their reaction to what our often uninformed politicians are saying, and so on. They even take time out to answer my questions. 

It was surprisingly easy to put together the list. I checked the credentials of the scientists to make sure they had relevant expertise and experience. I looked at their feeds to see the quality of what they are posting. I took the recommendations of other doctors and scientists I have come to know and respect. In this process, Twitter came to me to get help getting some of these scientists verified; Twitter also checked that their emails were from the institutions where they work. Most of the scientists are very good. I do take some people off the list when I see that they are retweeting questionable studies and are trying too hard just to get attention and clicks. 

Amplifying the expert’s voices is a good way to avoid listening to the same old official sources, as politicians, for example. In this sense, you criticized a NYTimes op-ed arguing that the cure might be worse than the disease. In Brazil, something similar happened this week, as Folha de S. Paulo (one of the largest Brazilian news organizations) highlighted an extract of an interview with the president of a financial market company saying that “COVID-19 peak in the upper classes has passed; the challenge is that Brazil has a lot of slums (favelas)”. This statement, in addition to accentuating the prejudice between social classes in a country as unequal as Brazil, also contradicts that has been said by scientists about the country’s situation. And the source was not a COVID-19 expert. What are the consequences of that kind of information? Can we say that it is a disinformation?

When I interviewed my scientists they made clear that journalists should seek out experts with relevant credentials: don’t quote a foot doctor about a virus; if you want to know about epidemiology go to a disease epidemiologist. The New York Times has given over important space to diet doctors to talk about epidemiology; TV often has on spine surgeon to talk about the pandemic. No. Trust only relevant expertise. I started every interview with my scientists asking: What is your expertise; what kinds of questions are you qualified to answer? They are very good at answering that question. You will find that a responsible source will say when they don’t know something or aren’t qualified to reply. Don’t trust someone who thinks he knows everything. Don’t trust someone who uses a title to push an agenda. 

In Brazil, as in the US, we have a president who denies the seriousness of the pandemic, is against social isolation and attacks the press daily. How can journalists report the president’s speeches ethically, without spreading disinformation?

In the U.S., TV made the mistake of airing Donald Trump’s so-called updates and press conferences — they were really just tiny rallies for TV. Our job is to inform the public and not to do anything that misinforms the public. Trump was misinforming the public. It was wrong to air him live, without fact-checking and context. Period. Especially with fact-challenged, authoritarian rulers, we must verify and debunk their claims; we must add context; and we must not normalize their insanity, ignorance, and bad behavior.