Complexity vs unambiguity

The medium film does not work like written articles do. One of the most noticeable differences: In films, the complexity and amount of verbally conveyed content per unit of time is much lower than f.ex. in newspapers or books. Science, however, is about precision and complexity and long sentences. So how well do scientific statements match with the brevity of expression which is necessary for moving images?

Interesting aspects of this issue are presented by some 5-to-10-minute episodes of Zapp, a continuous series of video reports produced by German public broadcaster NDR, which is available online,

Renowned German scientists like climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf or virologist Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit are among the interview partners of episodes like Wahr oder Falsch – medial erwünschte Eindeutigkeit (True or False – The Media Prefer Unambiguity), Missverständlich – wie Medien über Wissenschaft berichten (Misleading – How Media Report on Science) and Impfen: Ein Film verunsichert mit Halbwahrheiten (Vaccination: A Film Unsettles its Audiences with Half-truths).

According to these episodes the resulting problems are manifold. Oversimplification of scientists’ statements can distort the public debate about the facts and damage the reputation of individual scientists as well as of science as a whole. Some scientists feel that, especially in times of pandemic, politicians shift part of their responsibility to them by asking for unambiguous recommendations.

Another major issue, as pointed out by Volker Stollorz, managing director of the Science Media Center Germany, in this episode: Some political journalists introduce people into the public debate – f.ex. via talk shows – who present dubious scientific positions. According to Stollorz some political journalists are not experienced enough to select those who represent the scientific consensus. One could add that some journalists rather watch out for “experts” with concise and controversial positions.

The problem with the feature film about vaccination, however, is not shortness. The film is problematic because of its half-truths which are amplified by the emotionally touching story of a father trying to find out – with inadequate means – what is best for his children. The result, as shown in the respective Zapp episode: Parents of newborns go to the movies to get a first idea of what vaccination is about – and leave the cinema hall with unreasonable doubts, to say the least.

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