What COVID-19 could teach journalists about science

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the media with complicated health science issues, with challenges also relating to how journalists understand the statistics and mathematics underlying the pandemic.

The media’s reporting of COVID-19 often led to criticism by scientists about journalists’ perceived lack of understanding of complex health issues, whereas statisticians and economists criticised journalists for misinterpreting statistics about the pandemic.

The pandemic has emphasised aspects about health science that journalists should give serious attention to in newsrooms. They are listed here.

Understanding the difference between textbook science and frontier science

The distinction that Henry Bauer makes between textbook science and frontier science in the 1992 book Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method is very applicable to how the media report(ed) on COVID-19. ‘Textbook science’ is the settled scientific knowledge on which, in natural sciences, one can build one’s own work. Examples are Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity and Darwin’s theory of evolution; also, that HIV leads to AIDS.

By contrast, ‘frontier science’ is science as it is actually being conducted. Its results have just been obtained, [and these results] are uncertain and [often] unconfirmed (for instance, trying to get vaccines and cures for COVID-19, HIV-AIDS, Ebola and Alzheimer’s disease). Journalists rarely report on textbook science, mainly because it is not news anymore. They concentrate rather on frontier science with its new developments, often using a term like ‘breakthrough’ indiscriminately.

Balance, fairness and evidence

A basic tenet of fair journalism is the audi alteram partem rule (let the other side be heard). That entails that any report should be balanced and fair towards all parties.

This balance principle is part of the ethical codes of conduct of most media organisations in democratic societies. In science reporting, the balance principle is mostly not a requirement. Here, evidence becomes a vital aspect of reporting, where journalists should ‘borrow from science’ to ‘tell the facts, or the probable facts, from the chaff’, and as Victor Cohn writes, “try to judge all possible claims of fact by the same methods and rules of evidence that scientists use to derive some reasonable guidance in scores of unsettled issues”.

Boyce Rensberger, in an article, “What every journalist should know about science and science journalism”, links the need for evidence to its trustworthiness.

He writes: “Science demands evidence, and some forms of evidence are worth more than others are. A scientist’s authority should command attention but, in the absence of evidence, not belief … Balanced coverage of science does not mean giving equal weight to both sides of an argument. It means apportioning weight according to the balance of evidence.”

Science reporters have the moral obligation to weigh all the evidence, like scientists are obliged to do. Claims by alternative healers that their treatment can prevent or heal COVID-19 are rife on social media, and should be treated with circumspection by journalists.

Haider Warraich, a cardiologist, emphasised this point in an article titled “Dr Google is a liar”. “While misinformation has been the object of great attention in politics, medical misinformation might have an even greater body count. As is true with fake news in general, medical lies tend to spread further than truths on the internet – and they have very real repercussions,” writes Warraich.

Understanding risks and benefits

Rensberger emphasises a phenomenon often misunderstood by society and journalists, that nearly “all new technologies pose risks along with benefits. Thus ‘safe’ and ‘effective’, whether applied to drugs or new devices or processes, are always relative terms. It is irrational to ask whether something is safe or not. Nothing is 100% safe. Policy decisions involving science must balance risks and benefits.”

The Paracelsus Principle, formulated by Swiss scientist Paracelsus (1493-1541), is still widely accepted and discussed by John Timbrell in a book, The Poison Paradox: Chemicals as friends and foes. Timbrell writes: “All substances are poisons; there is none that is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.”

One of the most vehement debates in the public sphere – as set out by the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas – during the COVID-19 pandemic, was and still is the misinformation the anti-vaccination movement is propagating against vaccines in general and taking a vaccine against COVID when it becomes available.

Journalists are often caught between anti-vaccination activists strongly resisting a COVID-19 vaccine and trying their best to sway public opinion via the media, and scientists who try to get the message across about the safety of vaccines, very important interventions in public health over decades. For science journalists, the challenge of COVID-19 was also educational, to inform society on the safety of vaccines, and why pushing a possibly unsafe vaccine on the market because of political considerations is dangerous.

Accentuating the positive and ignoring the negative

The COVID-19 pandemic again emphasised the importance that journalists and science communicators should achieve a balance between the positive results of research findings being announced, and the negative aspects, the latter often hidden away in the conclusions or discussion section in peer-reviewed articles.

According to Trudy Lieberman, the news media have the moral obligation, as watchdog over the interests of the public, to report medical research correctly, as the “press too often is caught up in the same drug-industry marketing web that also ensnares doctors, academic researchers, even the FDA, leaving the public without a reliable watchdog… today a drug can move almost instantaneously from medical research to miracle cure through news media that too often seem more interested in hype and hope than in critically appraising new drugs on behalf of the public.

“The problem has grown dramatically in recent years as direct-to-consumer advertising has increased, delivering ever-higher ad revenues to the nation’s media.”

Lieberman authored the 2005 article Bitter Pill: How the press helps push prescription drugs, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Regarding how the internet has changed science journalism, Brian Trench, in the book Journalism, Science and Society: Science communication between news and public relations, is quoted as saying that the “job of the journalist is simplification without distortion, and therein lies the specific expertise of the science journalist”.

With COVID-19, this has become even more of a challenge because of a host of conspiracy theories propagated about the virus, for example that a vaccine would contain a microchip that would forever destroy the receiver’s privacy, or that 5G mobile phone technology is the transmitter of the virus.

Anecdotes are not reliable data

During the spread of COVID-19 and in absence of a cure, social media and the internet became channels through which personal stories circulated about how patients or sufferers of COVID-19 were ‘cured’ by mostly unproven, quack products. Anecdotes and quotes thrived in advertising and social media messages, ignoring that a test, treatment or technology cannot scientifically be applied to everyone.

Any anecdote testifying to the value a treatment or technology may hold, must also be balanced with the opposite testimony of one in which it is pointed out that the treatment or technology was not beneficial. Journalists reporting on science have a moral obligation to point out that anecdotes can be dangerous because they are mostly selective and taken out of context, without the negative aspects being emphasised.

Gina Kolata, a science reporter of the New York Times, refers to the emphasis reporters place on anecdotes as the “tyranny of the anecdote”, writes Ragnar Levi in the 2000 book, Medical Journalism: Exposing fact, fiction, fraud. The economist Roger Brinner points out that the “plural of anecdote is not data”, a warning that journalists should always remember.

Always use the primary source first

One of the most iniquitous aspects destroying journalists’ credibility is that many journalists report on science from a secondary source, mostly the news releases by universities and research institutions. During COVID-19, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca went directly to the media about news of the effectivity of a possible vaccine.

No peer-reviewed data and publication were available for scientists and the media to scrutinise, a highly worrying aspect of the communication process. The reliance on news releases by journalists often distorts findings, and exaggeration ‘in news is strongly associated with exaggeration in press releases’. This point is made in the 2014 article, “The association between exaggeration in health-related science news and academic press releases: Retrospective observational study”, published in the British Medical Journal.

Thus journalists and science communicators should always read the peer-reviewed study first, then secondary sources. “Ignoring the holistic picture and failing to recognize the conclusions and weaknesses of scientific studies is a serious flaw in many newsrooms,” states the blog. Too many editors and writers publish only what’s handed to them, which is a serious flaw in many newsrooms. Reporters should have requested the peer-reviewed studies when Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies went public first on a possible COVID-19 vaccine.

Science works with uncertainty

One of the most common characteristics of science is that its results are always open to further scrutiny. Rensberger emphasises, “Uncertainty is a sign of honest science and reveals a need for further research before reaching a conclusion. Cutting-edge science is highly uncertain and often flat-out wrong.”

This was strongly emphasised when the first announcements of a possible effective vaccine were made, and subsequently when AstraZeneca went back to the drawing board after picking up flaws in their originally announced data, with their initial optimism dissipating.

Dorothy Nelkin, in the book Selling Science: How the press covers science and technology, criticises the media for often promoting scientific findings ‘as the cutting edge of history, the frontier that will transform our lives’, without journalists highlighting and emphasising the uncertainty of those findings.

Beware of conflict of interest

Journalists’ independence forms an important part of their work ethic and is clearly stipulated in most codes of conduct.

The independence of scientists to conduct any study without a conflict of interest should, therefore, be easily related to by journalists as independence in reporting news is also an important part of the profession’s code of conduct.

Such a conflict of interest may affect the credibility of scientific findings. Journalists should always ask: who funded the study, were all the results published, was research registered, maybe abandoned? If so, why?

Ben Goldacre, in the 2012 book Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients, defines a conflict of interest as ‘when you have some kind of financial, personal, or ideological involvement that an outsider might reasonably think could affect your reasoning’.

Avoid offering misleading or harmful tips not based on scientific evidence

During COVID-19, advice on how to stay safe against the virus fluctuated between pseudoscientific rumours and quackery (consuming certain foods, following specific rituals without any evidence about their effectivity), and sound scientific advice (wearing masks, keeping social distances, sanitising hands).

Journalists often fail their moral obligation of being accurate in their reporting on science when, because of the nature of news presentation, news is often summarised by publishing lists of tips on scientific or other subjects. It has the advantage that it simplifies science news by giving short pointers to, for example, health matters. Yet journalists must ensure that these tips are based on scientific facts, not on pseudoscientific marketing or misinterpretation by not reading the full findings or corpus of research.

The difference between science and pseudoscience

Journalists should make sure that they know the difference between science and pseudoscience. The science philosopher Karl Popper in the work, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, explains the difference between a scientific and a metaphysical theory in that the former can be refuted or falsified, while it is not possible in the latter. In this way, it is possible to distinguish between scientific and pseudoscientific claims on the basis of testability.

Many claims were made about remedies against COVID-19 from politicians, very few tested. In his book, Voodoo Science: The road from foolishness to fraud, written by the physicist Robert Park, he puts it in a different way, stating that two rules determine the success and credibility of science, and distinguish it from pseudoscience and quackery:

• Expose new ideas and results to independent testing and replication by other scientists

• Abandon or modify accepted facts or theories in the light of more complete or reliable experimental evidence.

Distinguishing between science and pseudoscience and the way the media report on claims by quacks, charlatans and pseudoscientists should be guided by reporters’ ethical codes. COVID-19 challenged journalists to know the difference.

George Claassen is distinguished professor in science communication and media ethics at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, and the public editor of the online news service News24. This article is a summary of "Science, Morality and the Media: Complicity in spreading pseudoscience, or watchdog of the public?" in Van den Heever, J & Jones, C (eds), 2019, Moral Issues in the Natural Sciences and Technologies.