Superman was famous for being a hero who used his physical strength for good. But what I liked best was how from day to day he lived as the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent.

I love the fact that he was mild-mannered, and also that he was a reporter. I guess being a reporter helped explain why he always happened to be at the scene of the action. But I also like to think that serving as a reporter – a good reporter – was wonderfully compatible with being a hero.

I’ve always admired good reporters. The pen is mightier than the sword. But most importantly I have rejoiced at how good some writers are, and how the internet is giving voice to experts at the very moment when we need them more than ever.

Many people despair at the increasing visibility of fake news, outlandish conspiracy theories, and most bewildering – “alternative facts.” I contend that the answer to bad speech is more speech, and to bad reporting, the answer is good reporting.

I often hear that the very structure of the internet is such that fake news has an advantage – it excites, outrages, and spreads – and sober counter arguments don’t have a chance.

But they will have a better chance if we keep working hard to support them.

We should celebrate how well the messages about COVID vaccinations have got out to Australia. Many feared that the anti-vaxxers, prominent in demonstrations and on the web, would exert their influence. But take comfort in the data.  At the beginning of November 2021 more than 99 per cent of Australians over the age of 70 had opted to be vaccinated. Currently 95 per cent of over 50s have, and nearly 90 per cent of those over 16 years of age. These latter age groups haven’t had access to the vaccination program for as long, so we’ll see things improve further.

None of us is Superman but everyone of us can now be a reporter spreading good, high quality, news.

During my working life I have seen academics change their attitudes towards the media. Gone are the days when communicating one’s academic work was seen as improper self-promotion. Nowadays, research funding agencies and universities expect their staff to be active in “outreach.” There are numerous awards that testify to the importance of science communication, e.g. the Tall Poppy awards support junior academics in outreach, and specific Eureka Prizes for science communication, including long-form writing.

New opportunities to connect emerge year by year. I like the way that shows like Myth Busters involve the public and show the process of scientific testing. But beyond that there are important organisations that help get facts out. The Australian Science Media Centre was formed to connect researchers and media outlets – in part to compensate for the realisation that not all newspapers were retaining dedicated science reporters. In addition, the creation of The Conversation was a game-changer. The platform, that started in Australia and is now global, helps academics to deliver their insights and discoveries directly to the public, with the help of talented editors working behind the scenes.

This week UNSW Press launched its 11th edition of the Best Australian Science Writing (a perfect Christmas gift!) and announced the winners of the 2021 Bragg Prizes (that are supported by a grant from the Copyright Agency). Every year the work of our many supremely talented science communicators is recognised by these prizes and showcased in the anthologies.

It’s sometimes said that the messages aren’t getting through because scientists are not good communicators. I don’t believe that. The problem is so much simpler. It’s vested interests. It’s the fact that new evidence urging change is often unwelcome. Sometimes it is just inconvenient but sometimes it directly threatens those enjoying great privilege in the status quo. Conversely those clinging on to low paid jobs will also find change threatening.

Consequently, our superheroes have a battle on their hands. There are those who condemn the messengers, others attempt to discredit them, and invisible trolls, sometimes organised and supported, harass and abuse those communicating scientific news. But our superheroes stand firm, and their institutions must stand with them.

The battle will be ongoing. Research will keep turning up new information – some that is welcome, but some that represents a warning and forces us to change. It will be easiest to change if we recognise we are all in the same boat. If the inequities in society are reduced, both those with great wealth and those precariously hanging on will be brought together and will be more likely to support the cause. On top of this, breaking news and daily stories help unite our society and steady the ship.

We now live in the age of information. Truth will prevail because it is an unstoppable force. But it’s always a race, and the urgent race against climate change is far from won. We all need to be mild-mannered superheroes who push out breaking news across our democracies in a rising tide of education-informed wisdom to keep our human life raft from capsizing.

If you are a mild-mannered expert wondering whether you should commit yourself to outreach please always remember, as we brace to enter the thunderdome of the future, we do need another hero.

(Disclosure – I’m a board member of the Australian Science Media Centre, The Conversation, and UNSW Press but do not derive any profit from any of these)

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



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