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News Article

Responsible Science Reporting During the COVID-19 Outbreak

By José Escobedo | Wed, 04/08/2020 - 17:25

COVID-19 is by now considered the top story around the world. The pandemic has infected over 1.4 million people worldwide and has killed over 80,000. According to Bloomberg, it could cost $US 2.7 trillion to the world economy. To make matters worse, there is a lot of uncertainty about the pandemic due to misinformation that is being published through various means, causing great confusion among the general population. How journalists report on this pandemic and how they present the news to the public is the responsibility of every individual covering the story. This is why it is of extreme importance to do accurate COVID-19 reporting.  

Many journalists do not even report the name of the virus properly. According to journalist Merril Perlman in a recent CJR article, “since the outbreak, reporters have been using different names for the virus. For example, ‘the coronavirus,’ ‘a coronavirus,’ ‘new coronavirus,’ or ‘novel coronavirus.’ That is because this coronavirus is separate from other coronaviruses that have caused their own epidemics or pandemics. Each gets a name and each was new (or novel) at some point.” This is just one example of the inconsistencies that occur when reporting about the virus and that creates widespread confusion.

According to the Lancet, the COVID-19 epidemic features mechanisms of delivery of scientific information that are frankly unprecedented, adding to pressure for proper interpretation by the media and public. The article explains that scientific and medical publications are publishing research and studies (analysis) that have been peer reviewed, while preprint services are publishing unreviewed work. While researchers around the world debate stats and figures such as fatality rates, age and gender distribution of severe and deceased cases, as well as economic loss figures, these debates have caused media reporting to be inaccurate, especially when information is uncertain and research is ongoing.      

While scientists and reporters begin to understand new information that is being gathered on a daily basis, Lancet’s publication emphasizes that journalists’ duty is to “separate fact from inaccurate information, which is aggravated by the speed of unfolding events. How much still needs to be researched and understood by scientists and clinicians about COVID-19 has correlation to how many governments at the beginning of the spread of the pandemic tried to block information from the public.”

During times of COVID-19, emotions run high. Journalists who have reported on the COVID-19 outbreak have expressed and displayed a wide range of feelings and attitudes. The Guardian’s top communicators have expressed the following while covering the outbreak. “It has been one of the most complicated, difficult and important stories I have covered. At times I worried that the voices of the people most affected were being drowned out by the news. Other times I worry about the risks to those people when we tell their stories. We are constantly weighing how to show the human side of this crisis without endangering people,” says Lily Kuo, Beijing Bureau Chief of The Guardian.

Sarah Boseley, The Guardian´s Health Editor, says discarding rumor, error and gossip has played a major role when reporting. “I am quite often asked to cast an eye over others, to make sure we are not just accurate but calm and non-sensational.” Constant fact checking and making sure that all information gathered is reliable and current are ideals journalists should aim for when reporting, especially during a pandemic with such devastating consequences.  

“There’s a journalism school rule that has driven into the brains of all who go down that path: check, check and check again. It is important, whatever the story, whatever the subject, but never more so than in an unfolding public health crisis and coronavirus is certainly that. Higher stakes do change how you work. You over-check – both what you write and how it is edited down the line – because the consequences of screwing up are potentially far more serious,” says The Guardian’s Science Editor Ian Sample.

Nevertheless, journalists are not the only ones who need to take full responsibility when reporting. World health organizations across the world must also be held accountable in regards to accuracy and handling of information. Governments, agencies and health organizations want people at risk of infection to respond to COVID-19 with an appropriate level of alert, to cooperate with health authorities and to act with compassion and humanity, reports the Lancet.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) states the world needs more scientists who want to translate their expertise into effective communication on global concerns and anxieties to cut through the noise of fear and assumptions based on the unknown. This premise lead to WEF’s Young Scientists (YS) to apply this model across a variety of disciplines and problems, taking advantage of communication opportunities – presentations, meetings, workshops and conversations, as well as a variety of media platforms – to develop languages and approaches for different audiences and interests.

Nobody can argue that erroneous handling of COVID-19 information and its risk to the public will certainly lead to greater uncertainty and fear. WEF recommends direct communication from scientists themselves as an essential ingredient for a better-informed population. With interviews, op-eds, podcasts, blogs and social media, scientists are uniquely positioned to lead people out of the darkness and empower them with facts.

Once scientists have spoken, it is a writer’s job to communicate data accurately to the public. Poynter.org offers the following tips to science writers: “give people what they need to make safe decisions about their personal health and the public’s health. And give readers confidence in their knowledge so they will not be harmed by the type of anxiety that leads to panic — or worse.” While accuracy is definitely a virtue when reporting on a global pandemic, the site suggests reporters need to take it to a next level, working to be understood.

“Yes, a writer can be accurate and incomprehensible. Perhaps the only thing worse is to be inaccurate and comprehensible because then readers will be acting upon information that is useless or even dangerous. Your job as writers covering the coronavirus is not just to dump data. Your job is to take responsibility for what readers know and understand in the public interest.”

World known scientist and astronomer Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark: “Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get a hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course.” This is precisely what both scientists and journalists must do.

 

The data used in this article was sourced from:  
The Lancet, Bloomberg, World Economic Forum, The Guardian, Poynter.org
Photo by:   Unsplash
José Escobedo José Escobedo Senior Editorial Manager