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coronavirus: where science meets the headlines

By Fiona Fox

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.


I’ve had several messages from friends and family in the past few weeks assuming I must be horrified at being at the sharp end of yet another alarmist media feeding frenzy. After all, the SMC was set up to counter scare stories like MMR and GM, and most of my friends have been subject to a Fiona-style rant about the latest misleading stories on the dangers of statins, e-cigs or antidepressants. You can hardly blame them for watching the ever more dystopian headlines about COVID-19 and assuming that I will be somewhere howling at my TV.

But I am not horrified. In fact, I think the media coverage so far has been largely responsible and I am full of admiration for the scientists and journalists struggling every day to get this extremely complicated story right. I think the key difference between this story and other ‘scare stories’ can be summed up by the difference between alarm and alarmism. The SMC is in close contact with many of the top scientists working on this virus, including virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, public health experts and global health researchers. All of them are worried. Not about Armageddon, but about the impact on public health and the NHS if we fail to contain the virus. And more pertinently, given that many are global health researchers, about the impact in countries in Asia and Africa whose health systems may struggle to cope with a pandemic.

You could argue that alarmed scientists meeting alarmist journalists is a lethal combination. And there are certainly elements of that. But it’s not the full story. Scientists who are worried have nonetheless gone out of their way to ensure that every development is responded to in a measured and cautious way. We laugh in my office about how almost every comment in our roundups of experts includes a variation of ‘this should come as no surprise’. The researchers are at pains to remind journalists that so far nothing is happening that we would not expect based on our current understanding of the virus. Of course science has its fair share of alarmists, but I don’t see them dominating the coverage of this virus.

And yes, some media coverage has been sensational. Early UK news reports talked of the ‘Killer Virus’ when no one in the UK had died, and one of the red tops is still calling it ‘Snake Flu’ long after claims linking it to snakes were dismissed (and despite it not being flu). When it was revealed that there were five suspected cases in Scotland, a bunch of London-based journalists were put on five-hour train journeys by their excitable editors even though there was literally nothing to see. One of my colleagues spent several hours on a busy day trying to get a Mail Online reporter to change a headline suggesting that scientists at our emergency press briefing had called for an urgent blanket travel ban. In fact, there had been no ‘call’ for anything – just a low-key answer to a question about existing travel restrictions where the word ‘ban’ wasn’t used. We’ve even had journalists asking our experts to comment on reports that the virus has come from space.

But the bad examples are few and far between, and are easily outweighed by the really good coverage from the UK’s science and health reporters. I wish critics of the media coverage could come and sit in our office for a day and see the lengths to which these journalists go to get their stories right. We have had journalists sending multiple emails on just one aspect of this fast-moving story in an attempt to ensure they are getting it right. Issues like what a ‘close contact’ means; why the UK public aren’t being recommended to use face masks; the likelihood of asymptomatic transmission; the bewildering decision by the Chinese authorities to broaden their classification of cases which made it initially look like there had been a huge upturn in cases in China; and reports that some people were failing several tests before getting a positive one. These developments are complicated, often not yet fully understood by the experts and hard to report to a lay audience. But remarkably busy scientists have spent time with remarkably busy journalists to make it sure it is reported well.

The scientists that tend to generate the most scary headlines are the epidemiologists who use complex mathematical models to work out how an infectious disease can progress. The purpose of models is to help inform the government and public health authorities so that they can decide on the best public health interventions and prepare the country and the NHS for worst case scenarios. As with much in science, in the past the modelling of infectious diseases was mostly shared between scientists and government away from the media spotlight. But these days the numbers are published on pre-print servers and other public facing portals and updated every few days by respected groups such as the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London. Models of COVID-19 have projected a worst case scenario in which up to 60 per cent of the world could contract coronavirus – a figure that could apply to Britain – and that of the infected population, up to 1 per cent could die, which in the UK’s case would be hundreds of thousands of people.

A well-known think tank once described the media reporting of climate change models as ‘Climate Porn’, and you can certainly see why no self-respecting journalist is ever going to pass on the chance to report the possibility of 400,000 deaths when it comes from leading experts. But what is the solution? Should we go back to the days when these models were only shared with ministers and the WHO? Or ask scientists to refuse to speak to journalists and to hide the worst case scenarios? Professor Neil Ferguson, who runs the MRC unit, is careful to emphasise the uncertainty of these models. When pushed by a Channel 4 News journalist for specific numbers, Professor Ferguson conceded that the 400,000 deaths was “not absurd”, but quickly emphasises that putting a number on it is “unhelpful because we have so little information”, before explaining that there are still many unknowns, including what proportion of those infected may die and what the at-risk groups are.

In the end, I think we just have to trust the public to understand the difference between projected worse case scenarios based on models and reality. As Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said in his excellent interview on the Today programme on Thursday 13th February, “I think it’s a mistake to put numbers which are entirely speculative…If it looks as if there is an epidemic rolling our way, which is possible, I would be delighted to come back to this programme and talk through with real numbers rather than in a sense entirely speculative ones”. One of the SMC’s mantras is that science in the headlines is always an opportunity as well as a threat. This huge media interest is a great opportunity to educate the wider public that modelling is the only way we have to get a reasonable idea of the uncertainty here – the best and the worst – as well as on the wider aspects of the virus and the outbreak.

Critics of the media coverage have also pointed out that thousands of people die of seasonal flu in the UK every year without the media flying into a spin. This is an absolutely fair point, but hardly a new one. One of my favourite subjects on my journalism degree 35 years ago was ‘news values’, the study of the often perverse and ethically dubious values that determine what makes news and what doesn’t. It is news values which dictate that old, familiar diseases which kill thousands – like lung cancer, seasonal flu and heart disease – don’t make the headlines, while an exotic Asian virus that hasn’t yet killed anyone in the UK does. But ‘twas ever thus. I remember an emergency press briefing we ran just days after 20,000 people had been wiped out by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Professor David Rothery, the leading expert on earthquakes, wasn’t asked a single question at the briefing because all that the journalists wanted to know about was how many would die as a result of radiation released after the explosion at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. When I grumbled to one journalist as he left the briefing, he just smiled wryly and said, “Fiona – you must know our editors love nothing more than a hidden killer”. So it is with COVID-19. What makes it news is that it is new, unknown, not yet understood and mysterious – a winning formula in any newsroom.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this particular story is that some of those same unknowns that make this a great subject matter for headline writers are also keeping scientists awake at night. At time of writing, we don’t yet know whether, or how, the virus will mutate, what the death rate could be, whether patients can infect others before they have any symptoms, how many more cases we might get in the UK and whether we will have an outbreak here, or whether and when we’ll develop treatments for, or a vaccine against, the virus.

The other thing that has gone well during this crisis has been the communication between the SMC and the government press officers managing the official government response to the crisis. I have written publicly during similar crises about my clashes with government press officers who want to keep control over all public health communications and make no secret at their frustration at the SMC putting out comments from top independent scientists who sometimes say things which don’t fully align with government messaging. Our argument is that the days of the public getting just a single, official public health message once or twice a day are well and truly over. We believe it’s far better for the SMC to feed the hungry 24-hour news machine with top quality scientists speaking from an evidence base than to leave a vacuum. This message seems to have got through, and this crisis has been notable for the positive communication between the SMC and relevant government press officers. I am convinced this is a winning formula that serves the media and public well, and hope this sets a precedent for future co-operation.

COVID-19 is not over and the experts don’t yet know which way it will go. At the time of writing, eight of the nine UK cases have been allowed home, as have the 94 people isolated in the Wirral – both positive signs for the situation in the UK. But things could change if the virus becomes established in lots of countries outside of China. Let’s hope it’s the former. Either way, I will be proud of the role UK scientists and science journalists have played in informing the public about this new virus, and of the openness scientists have shown in answering every question raised. To those who ask me what good science communication looks like: this is it.

2 Responses to coronavirus: where science meets the headlines

  1. Diana Bell says:
    Excellent piece Fiona in every respect. Well done and thank you and the team for your considerable round the clock collective efforts.

    Excellent piece Fiona in every respect. Well done and thank you and the team for your considerable round the clock collective efforts.

  2. Jonathan Leake says:
    Thanks Fiona - great summary.

    Thanks Fiona – great summary.

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