Ecology in Media: Thoughts, Questions and the Insect Apocalypse

Recent reports of collapses in insect populations were eagerly devoured online. But were the reports exaggerations, and if so, how did they make it into the headlines? (Image Credit: Barta IV, CC BY 2.0)

Two weeks ago, an article on the Insect Apocalypse hit my Facebook feed. It popped up everywhere. People seemed genuinely concerned about the plight of the world’s insects, which was a first for me.

An hour later I was sitting at a conference seminar in which the speaker bemoaned the poor data that had contributed to the key statistic in the article: that biomass of flying insects had decreased by 75% over the last 27 years. The methods used in the report apparently show huge bias towards large bodied species, which may have exaggerated the findings significantly. So here lies our quandary.

On the one hand, a study that, as a result of its choice in methods, could have inflated statistics and unintentionally misinformed the public. On the other, you suddenly have widespread attention for an ecological phenomena that has been widely documented and largely ignored by the public.

A similar situation sprung up last year, with a report suggesting that humans had killed 60% of the world’s wildlife in 45 years doing the rounds on social media. Again, whilst the situation IS bad, the media generally misinterpreted facts put forth by the report (read more about it here).

Reports like this may spike interest in previously glossed-over causes, but personally I think misinterpretation of science can damage people’s understanding of, and ultimately trust in scientific findings in the long term. Once the news had covered the issue, counter-reports like the one linked above emerged. Whilst most of these counter-reports highlighted misinterpretation of figures as opposed to sensationalism on the part of scientists, the whole process only serves to waver people’s faith in future reports.

But is it fair to blame the media here, lambasting them for deliberate distortion of the facts? Or do scientists need a better understanding of the media, rather than vice versa? Scientists may provide results, but the media needs a constructed narrative. If scientists don’t provide this, the media constructs it themselves.

The answer for ecologists seems simple – just check the study. But many of these studies are hidden behind paywalls (fortunately, the insect paper mentioned is available to everyone here) and coated in layers of jargon not easily accessible to the public. So how do we bridge the gap?

For an interesting take, I’d recommend checking out this piece on Michael Crichton and storytelling.

We spoke to Anne Sverdup-Thygesen at the NØF Conference 2 weeks ago, and I’ll be speaking to Carsten Rahbek at the Centre of Biodiversity Dynamics in Trondheim tomorrow. Both are prominent Scandinavian ecologists with a wealth of experience interacting with the media. I hope to have more in-depth answers then.

But until then, I cannot emphasise enough, that whilst both of the examples I started this article with (and many more of their kind) were misconstrued by the media, both issues that they highlight are very real, and very grim.

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