Disability and Accessibility in Science Journalism

Cancer is cured, the blind can see again and paraplegics will be able to walk. No, the messiah hasn't returned yet and RTL's mental trainer hasn't struck either. You could believe these statements if you were a regular reader of the yellow press pages in newspapers and magazines. I'll call it scientific journalism for the sake of simplicity, although it would be more appropriate to call it tabloids.

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How the Science Journalism works

The soccer World Cup, which has just ended, throws a spotlight on this. Originally planned as a major event, the ball was kicked off by a paraplegic using a so-called exo-skeleton. The skeleton can be imagined as a kind of suit, with the vehicle being controlled via the brain. Apparently, what was actually seen wasn't spectacular enough, which is why those responsible summarily classified it as a marginal event did, not without enjoying the attention they garnered with their outspoken announcements.

Now you can argue about the sense and nonsense of the exo-skeletons, I don't want to do that here. I don't see this as critically as others, from my point of view it is quite positive that such technologies are reported at all, which otherwise hardly receive any attention in scientific circles. Even if most paraplegics will never wear such suits, they - and others - can only benefit from research into brain-machine interfaces.

Science journalism and accessibility

A general problem is how scientific journalism deals with such reports. Apparently, many press releases from scientific institutions are published more or less unchanged. Now this is really unpleasant.

Even institutions are not exemplary

One would think that state institutions such as universities and all the Fraunhofer or Max Planck institutes would handle their public relations responsibly, at least more responsibly than companies. But it seems to be the other way around, companies have become more cautious, not least because journalists and a critical public are constantly watching them and exploiting every faux pas with relish. Public institutions, on the other hand, seem to have the freedom to fool. The problem is that false hopes and expectations are raised among those affected, their families and friends.

Now one cannot expect even seasoned nature and technology journalists to be well versed in all, even remote, subject area. But what one can definitely expect is a critical assessment of press releases and scientific articles. Their primary purpose is no longer exchange or information, but the reputation of the researcher and the acquisition of third-party funds. One can accept that this is one of the many web bugs of the system. However, there is no need to support this nonsense by spreading it uncritically.

Companies advertise, not information

But commercial enterprises have also upgraded. So you read a lot about a chip that makes the blind see. Behind them are mostly well-established aid companies with quite respectable sales. One might think it legitimate that these companies want to make money. However, it is not legitimate to raise false hopes in those affected and to present oneself as a charitable institution.

Unfortunately, social media has made things worse rather than better. While in the past you could only see the stuff on the science pages of newspapers, such reports are also rampant on Twitter and Facebook, including from those affected themselves, who should actually know better. Take the OrCam, for example, which is actually no more than a better smartphone or smart glass, which for a time was considered a silver bullet against blindness. Or Hyperbraille, a large-area Braille display that is so expensive that no private person will ever own it. The chain can be continued indefinitely. I have to admit that I too have spread such reports. However, I thought that people from the target group could already assess how useful such developments are, meanwhile I'm not so sure and if I have doubts about the seriousness of a report today, it flies into the virtual wastebasket.

Another customer for such information is, of course, the online publications. It's those typical messages that are shared a lot and hardly read - which is better in this case. Big blogs like TechCrunch, but also Spiegel Online need a constant supply of such information popcorn, stuff that is easy to digest and doesn't upset anyone. Except for those affected themselves, because they assume that SpOn and Co. check such reports before they publish them. SpOn, on the other hand, seems to have so much trust in the institutions that they accept the reports more or less unchanged. Another flashy headline like "Blind people learn to see again" and the next message comes up.

What to do?

We have seen that there are three parties in this game: the senders, the multipliers and the audience.

Senders should reconsider whether their strategy is good for them in the long run. You know the story of the boy who kept shouting that the wolf was coming and when the wolf actually came no one believed him anymore. The "bad guys" ruin the reputation of the whole industry. For my part, I'm tired of reading such reports and today I automatically believe more that they are wrong than that they are right.

The multipliers should simply use their craft correctly. If I can't judge whether a message is true or not, or if it's obviously just advertising in disguise, it should be thrown away, no matter how many clicks it gets. False reports damage their credibility as well as the senders.

Last but not least, critical examination is also a task for the audience. If a message is obviously garbage, don't spread it. I recommend sending a complaint to the responsible editor, but very few of us have the luxury of time. If you don't want to get away from the share-like stuff, you should at least add a critical remark, because most people can't assess the truthfulness of a report, if only for reasons of time.

Relatives of disabled people should also learn a healthy skepticism. Most of what is in the reports is, if not untrue, then at least a dream of the future. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't true, according to Murphy's new law.

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