In the COVID-19 Pandemic, Science Reporting Matters

By Sheeva Azma

(Published July 26, 2020; Updated July 27, 2020)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, I have noticed a distinct lack of mainstream science reporting relating to the science behind the vaccines. Yet, I feel like that the science of COVID-19, including therapeutics and vaccines, is the one thing I want to know the most about.

Am I the only one who wants to know more about the scientific aspect of COVID-19? I was so curious that I did my own research and created an entire section of my website dedicated to the novel coronavirus.

Maybe I am indeed unique in my curiosity, as learning about what the President or Members of Congress did or said today about COVID-19 and our national response is of very little interest to me anymore. Yet, it seems like that’s the only thing we hear about on the news. It doesn’t help that there are currently no biomedical scientists in Congress. As a result, nobody has all the facts when it comes to science, and science research is often politicized.

national cancer institute
Can journalists translate what happens in the lab into easily understandable terms in the COVID-19 pandemic? Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.

In My Ideal World, We’d *all* Know Science!

At some point, I assumed that all the information we need to know about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, would be communicated by mainstream media in a way that made sense and was compelling. I imagined turning on my television and readily learning about the science. CNN’s Brooke Baldwin and FOX’s Harris Faulkner, I assumed, would tell everyone about the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and how it is the part of the novel coronavirus that can get into cells and cause COVID-19. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow would offer hope by explaining how the best candidate vaccines for the novel coronavirus would work. In my ideal pandemic world, medical and scientific experts would be recruited by left-wing and right-wing news outlets alike to discuss the science in a way that made sense to everyone.

Furthermore, in my ideal world, people would soak up this information like a sponge and actively seek out more. Instead of letting politics obscure science and the real priorities at hand — educating ourselves as much as possible about this mysterious new virus to help us win our war against it — we would put mind over manner and listen to the science. All of us, not just the experts, would take all of this great scientific knowledge to heart. Clearly, that did not happen.

… In Reality, when Science and Politics Mix, The Result is Typically Not Great

There is no Republican COVID-19 or Democrat COVID-19. We all live in the same universe and in the same pandemic governed by the natural laws of the universe (as much of many of us wish we were right now). But you’d never get this viewpoint by watching mainstream media.

The best example of real-world science reporting I saw on CNN in the early days of the pandemic. Chris Cuomo acquired COVID-19 and did his late-night show from self-quarantine at home. He spoke candidly about his symptoms and Dr. Sanjay Gupta talked to him and the viewers about the science of the novel coronavirus. Sadly, since those early days of the pandemic, not only has the situation in the U.S. gotten more dire, but reporting has devolved into partisan bickering. Questions like: Are we all wearing masks, or are they impinging on our freedom? Are we all going to continue to go to the bar with our friends in a pandemic when the CDC says we should stay home? These questions would not even be an issue if our media acted responsibly and worked to establish scientific literacy rather than score political points and attract more viewers.

I assumed that accurate science reporting would not only be paramount in the pandemic — but that it would also be galvanizing and unifying. Instead, I was also shocked to discover the anti-vax movement and its efforts to derail public awareness of the importance of vaccines.

Sadly, we do not live in my ideal world, where everyone has the essential knowledge to rapidly understand concepts in biomedical science. However, this is a great time for mainstream media to tap into their network of experts to provide the most accurate science reporting and avoid further misinformation and partisan banter. If we do not educate ourselves quickly, we will surely need to do so much later, when COVID-19 has completely and permanently devastated our way of life due to our own ignorance and denial.

CNN’s mRNA Tweet Highlights the Need for Better Pandemic Science Reporting

As I’ve explained, I have been unsatisfied with the quality of (and, in some cases, lack of) science reporting related to COVID-19. In fact, that’s why my colleague Nidhi of The Shared Microscope and I wrote our own series on COVID-19 vaccines and how they work.

For weeks, we were the only resource for informative, easy-to-understand information on COVID-19 vaccine candidates such as Moderna’s mRNA vaccine. Recently, CNN published their own explainer on the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine — the first I have seen on mainstream media — which was met with some unfortunate criticism. A tweet from CNN which promoted their article mistakenly called messenger RNA a “cell” rather than a molecule. The error attracted the disapproval of many “real” scientists.

screenshot of a tweet from CNN which shows an error in their discussion of messenger RNA
CNN’s much-maligned tweet could have been fixed by nominal copyediting by a scientist.

When I saw this tweet, I was taken aback. First, I was filled with excitement, as we had already blogged about the mechanisms of the virus — we had beat CNN in science reporting! Then, I realized that our mainstream media is, once again, not getting it right when it comes to science reporting — which is actually disastrous in a pandemic when we all need to know the latest, best science.

Despite the need for all citizens of the world to understand science right now, most people are not scientists. That means that the news has to explain it to us effectively. Misinformation or a reputation for reporting the news “wrong” can undermine all of our public health efforts. Bad science reporting could be worse than no science reporting at all.

Is COVID-19 Science on the Back Burner in the Newsroom?

CNN’s minute, yet consequential, error got me thinking about the state of science in our newsrooms today as compared to other types of reporting. Would this tweet have had more proofreading if it was about something the President said today rather than a list of “boring” science facts? Why doesn’t CNN have the resources to hire high-quality scientific editors? Is it unrealistic to ask the news to educate its audience — millions, if not billions, of people — on the basics of biomedical science in a pandemic?

In my COVID-19 fantasy world, I had assumed too much about mainstream media, which, as I later learned, does not do that much “real” science reporting. Instead, networks twist the news to fit their own agendas — which, in this election year, seems very much about the 2020 presidential race.

Don’t get me wrong, I watched the daily televised briefings with the President, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, and I looked forward to them every day because I knew they would have good information from the top experts in infectious disease. Yet — at some point it all just fell apart. The science got overshadowed by the politics, of course. The President, based on advice from his trusted science advisors, wanted to do a three-part reopening, but the state of Georgia was impatient and decided to reopen early. Texas soon followed suit. “What happened?” I wondered, as the two Republican strongholds surely could have just as easily heeded the President’s advice. Next, a feud began about wearing masks versus not wearing masks, and our “flatten the curve” efforts seemed to give way to ignorance and denial. As the case counts went down, so, too, did people’s cautiousness about mitigation and prevention strategies for COVID-19. It all became difficult to watch and led to a surge in cases — and, sadly, very little of it was ever about the science.

It’s Not Too Late to Get Science Reporting Right in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Why is science journalism important? The simple answer is that we’re not all scientists. The general public have the critical thinking skills used by scientists daily in the lab. So, science journalists have the tough job of translating complex science to a general audience and striking a balance between scientific accuracy and simplicity.

Why is science journalism important? The simple answer is that we’re not all scientists.

As a freelance writer, I have spent the greater part of a decade explaining science to the public in general terms. When the pandemic started, I assumed there would be people like me who could help people understand not only the gravity of the situation, but also the hope that vaccines could potentially offer. “Where are the science writers here?” I thought to myself. “Are there any?” As CNN’s erroneous post shows, mainstream media is beginning to catch up — however, their important responsibility in the pandemic is to do science reporting right. To report the facts wrong or politicize them even more could cause mainstream media to lose credibility and undo our national response, leading to even more mortality.

The pandemic is far from over. As the race to a vaccine heats up, now is the time for mainstream media to invest in high quality science reporting that is both accurate and understandable. I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Update, 7/27/2020: CNN has, following the publication of this post, corrected their tweet.

screenshot of the corrected CNN mRNA tweet

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