By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
I’m not on social media, but since the start of COVID-19, I have been finishing emails and texts with friends and family with this – #humilityneeded. I started using it at the end of January when some friends were concluding that the media coverage was sensationalising the risks of the virus arriving in the UK. It came out again when people started sending multiple opinion pieces boldly asserting which bits of the UK strategy were right or wrong. In a rather troubling sign of the impact of lockdown on me, I now find myself saying my hashtag out loud as my already obsessive news consumption rises to new levels. As someone known for embracing strong views and the questioning of authority, why this sudden penchant for humility? The answer is COVID-19. Or more particularly, how little we know about it and how much complexity and uncertainty still surrounds it.
I have spent much of this crisis praising the science and health reporting, which remains excellent. But in recent weeks, I have seen it taking a back seat to political reporting, and I just have this sense that the standard norms of political journalism might not be quite right for reporting on a virus of such epic uncertainty and unknowns.
Don’t get me wrong. The sheer scale of the tragedy playing out in front of us makes critical journalism more important than ever. Nor am I in the camp saying these questions should be suspended until we get to the other side. What I am struggling with though is the tone of some of the reporting, most especially from the political reporters now dominating the coverage. There is a kind of moral certainty in some of the questions that feels misplaced. A demand for certainty where there just isn’t any. A clamour for answers which do not yet exist.
Freddie Sayers, a brilliant young journalist and Executive Editor of UnHerd, recently talked about his time working as a political journalist in the lobby at a debate about media coverage of COVID-19. He described how a good day for a political reporter is catching the government out; a better day still is proving they are lying; and there are extra points for getting a ‘scalp’ – an unsavoury word for the stories that force a minister to resign. In his rather understated manner, Sayers mused as to whether this kind of political reporting was equal to the challenge of the times.
In deference to my own hashtag I am happy to be told I’ve got this wrong, but I tend to agree with Sayers. The SMC has become a first port of call for science and health journalists asking questions and gathering comments from the UK’s leading scientists. My main insight from this vantage point is that, despite four months of intensive research by many of the world’s cleverest scientists, there are still fundamental things we don’t understand about the new coronavirus. I know lists are terrible in articles, but as this is my own blog, please indulge me. Here’s my incomplete list of what we don’t yet know about this virus:
When we asked scientists why this virus was proving so elusive to understand, Dr Jonathan Stoye, from the Francis Crick Institute, gently rebuked us for expecting scientists to have fully understood a new virus in four months. “We have been studying other viruses that cause disease, such as HIV-1, for a much greater period of time; remarkable progress has been made but without a final cure. As various people are supposed to have said, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer”.
I list these unknowns not to depress you – in fact, one scientist described the worldwide scientific effort to understand the virus in just four months as “stupendous”. I list them because being mired in these questions every day might explain why I find the ‘isn’t it obvious’ or ‘why did we not do this before’ style of questioning jarring.
The month-long focus on whether the government would meet its 100,000 testing target is a good example of what I am getting at. While politicians and reporters did their daily dance around the arbitrary number, scientists made my head spin with their patient explanations of the scientific challenges around testing. Apparently, it’s widely accepted that the accuracy of the ‘have I got it’ test is high, but there are questions that remain: whether they are being used in the most important way; when and why people need a second test; exactly what the false positive/false negative rates are; if different labs have different levels of accuracy and if so why; the time lag between the test and the results; etc. And that’s only the first test.
The other ‘have I had it’ test will be useful for scientific serological studies to help us understand the proportion of the population who have been infected and which sectors and regions have had more of the virus. Additionally, there is excitement about these tests because it’s often reported that the presence of antibodies means the individual has immunity and could therefore return to normal society. But guess what? It’s not that simple. We still don’t know whether the tests are accurate and sensitive enough; how immunity to this new coronavirus works; whether everyone produce antibodies; whether people differ in the amount of antibodies produced; whether the antibody response is linked to the severity of illness; whether antibodies actually convey immunity; how long immunity lasts for; etc.
You could forgive journalists for preferring to play the numbers and targets game rather than having to report this complexity. But in so doing, I’m not convinced they are properly explaining anything of real value about testing to the public.
There are some straightforward political questions that demand answers, and I have no desire to let the government off the hook here. The failure to put established pandemic preparedness plans in place early enough and the slow response to the WHO’s ‘test, test, test’ mantra are just two examples of questions rightly put to politicians. But many of the big decisions still rest on our progress in understanding the virus and frankly none of us yet fully understand it. Not the scientists, not the politicians, and not the journalists. So maybe we just need to all stop pretending we do. Doubtless politicians are spinning and hiding plenty as they always have. But somehow the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’ approach feels a little off beam. At the 16 SMC press conferences we have so far run on COVID-19 the science and health journalists are free to ask anything they like and often ask probing questions. There is another way of doing things.
And there are other ways in which political reporting is not well suited to the task in hand. I, and others, have pointed out that reports of a government ‘U-turn’ on moving into lockdown, partly informed by the Imperial College models published on 16 March, were bizarre. When the data changes, the science changes. When it changes again, the science changes again. That’s the way science works. I am firmly in the Churchill camp of science ‘on tap, not on top’, and I am now nervous that the ‘we are following the scientific advice’ mantra is code for ‘we will blame science if this goes horribly wrong’. However even with this view, it’s clear to me that the decision to move to suppression was not the kind of policy U-turn beloved of political journalists and despised by Margaret Thatcher. While political hacks gleefully reported the move to lockdown as proof that the previous approach had failed, the science reporters were compiling four page pull-outs explaining the Imperial modelling paper and getting page hits into the millions. Of course COVID-19 isn’t just about science and there is plenty in the story to keep the political and economics reporters busy. But political reporters seem to dominate the Downing Street press conferences even when the focus is clearly on the latest scientific advice or public health messaging.
I guess some of this is inevitable when the only story in town is a medical science one and journalists with no hinterland of science are suddenly transferred from reporting Brexit to reporting on the R0. One good thing that could come out of this nightmare would be a better understanding of the way science works, including the fact that scientists regularly disagree and evidence grows by knocking down theories and improving on previous findings. But that will not happen if journalists used to looking for splits in Cabinet start looking to disagreements amongst scientists for a new ‘angle’. This approach doesn’t work on many levels. Right now, we all really need the best scientists to be testing each other’s evidence more robustly and rigorously than ever, not worrying that every comment they make will be snatched for the next news bulletin as further proof that something has gone wrong.
Which brings me to my final worry – that scientists will start to step back from the fray as the story gets more politicised. Last week, I had to spend time persuading four different scientists not to step back from the fray because of the political nature of the questions they are now facing and the way scientific differences were being spun to put them into certain camps. One expert who had agreed to a lab visit by a science journalist considered pulling out when the testing question became so heavily politicised. Another scientist working 12-hour days testing new treatments was door-stepped over two days by a Sunday newspaper – hardly the kind of public benefit envisaged when reporters were granted key worker status. Another, after reading countless articles about his membership of SAGE, wrote “We are not a secret cabal of ‘Official Government Advisors’ plotting policy. We are a bunch of university lecturers, who only left the picket line because we’re trying to help get the country through this, and who spend half our time trying to find the unmute button on Zoom.” Thankfully, my powers of persuasion are good, but I worry that there are others out there who have stepped back already. It’s hard to see how that will benefit anyone.
The science and health journalists have been there from day one in early January, managing to report what little we do understand while conveying clearly what we have still to learn. Many of my days now start with checking out great explainers by science reporters, including James Gallagher’s on the BBC website – last week’s offerings were on R0 and immunity after recovery. And there are bits of new media coming through with properly immersive reporting. Tom Chivers has been writing great stuff on UnHerd, and Freddie Sayers’ two long interviews with Neil Ferguson and Johan Giesecke for the same outlet stand out. In a lovely piece in Press Gazette in March, Shaun Lintern, award-winning health reporter on The Independent, talked about how the health reporters had suddenly become the most important journalists in the newsroom. That was not only nice to read, but reassuring in terms of the wider public and policy-makers getting access to great science. It feels to me like this has shifted and the science reporting is now serving the political. I hope it drifts back. We need the best of all journalism in this crisis – political and science.
One positive to come out of the MMR debacle of 20 years ago was that editors acknowledged mistakes and started to defer more to their science and health specialists. Indeed, MMR may be one of the reasons that the UK news media has not haemorrhaged specialist science journalists in the way we have seen in other countries. I hope we don’t forget that lesson at this crucial moment.
The instinct to hold ministers’ feet to the fire has been the making of many a journalist. It’s often the right one. But as ever, there is a balance to be struck. And when there is so much still to learn, I suggest the public are better served by an approach which acknowledges the unique and unprecedented challenge we all face in tackling this virus and the need to understand the complexity of an ever-changing situation. There will be plenty of time down the line to return to seeking scalps.
*By commenting on this blog you agree to abide by our Terms and Conditions.
Excellent article. One very poor piece of scientific and journalistic reporting has been over the mantra of “test test test”. This WHO advice has never been followed up with a “why why why”. Nor has it been expanded to trace and isolate until recently. Early on journalists pushed the view that more testing resulted in less deaths citing Germany’s position, but scientists were unable to expand on this to present to the public that it is not the tests themselves that save lives but the huge amount of effort post testing in trace and isolation and the identifying of potential asymptomatic carrier which once in place may save a lives. To have all this infrastructure up and running within a month was a fantasy for the UK
Thank you so much for this. I’m a journalist/TV producer of science-led documentaries for, mainly, the BBC (most recently a BBC2 series following a clinical trial in depth) and I have found the news reporting increasingly frustrating for exactly this reason. Indeed, gaining access to great science stories is increasingly difficult because of the general concern about how science is reported by the media. But please know that the Science Media Centre is doing a great job and is being widely shared. The pandemic will be a good thing in terms of raising science’s profile (after all, it will ultimately save the world). Keep up the amazing work.
I agree – excellenmt article. However, notwithstanding all the ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’, the UKGOV has been let off the hook for not acting on the 2016 pandemic preparedness assessment and other inexcusable failings, not least over PPE. The gaps in lessons that could have been learnt (and still can) are also hard to forgive. Country by country comparisons are fraught with difficulty, but if you are looking for an answer to ‘why, why, why’, surely Singapore is an object lesson. As soon as the outbreak was recognised, they applied screening and contact tracing to a population of simlar density and size to that of inner London. That swift action plus forward-planned ICU provision has kept number of deaths to 18, as of today. Importantly, their oversight when it came to migrant worker hostels, the resurgence of new cases and the imposition of new restrictions of movement further proves the point.
I agree. You may be interested in the following blog. https://www.moxforum.co.uk
So many of my family and friends are finding exactly what you describe.
Would be thrilled to be in touch.
Richard Moxon FRS. FMedSci
Thank you Fiona. I agree. I just tried to post a comment but I may have done something wrong.
I have set up a blog
It’s aim, prompted by family and friends who have encountered the very problems you have detailed, is to try and find a middle way between scientific journals and the agenda driven comments of science reporters.
Would be thrilled to be in touch.
Fiona – first of all a big thanks to the SMC. You could not be doing a better job and I have used your output extensively to inform my own reporting and to assist other colleagues. I pass on links to your work almost hourly. Secondly, I support your views about the lower value and relevance of aggressive political reporting in general but rate it more highly than you in one area. And that is keeping the pressure on ministers to ensure the continually assess the success of their messages.
The Government is trying to manage our behaviour in order to manage the virus and it has to do that with messages. In the case of the 100,000 tests a day, my view is that it was working ahead, trying to create a “success” to build confidence at the point when lockdown would really begin to chaff. The strategy was justified and the issue picked not a bad one – great for TV, good for all areas of the country and populations types – and emphasising support for NHS workers. The line political reporters have to tread is not to get sucked into always focusing on the distracting detail, but to stand back and look at the bigger picture – What else is the Government doing to win our consent to lockdown? Is it working? What are the long term consequences (e.g. economic) And, is it still the right strategy?
Both what the Government decides and what political reporters challenge has to be based in great part on science – and as you say yourself we have a long way to go before scientist have had sufficient time to understand Covid-19. Managing our way out of the pandemic is made even more complicated by the inexact science of understanding human behaviour.
Experienced political reporters can read indecision, disagreement and conflict within the Government, indeed they have spent much time and effort getting to know the individuals to make sure they can do that. There is no doubt that the pandemic crises has shifted the priorities, ideology and preoccupations of this Government, not just for now, but permanently. And this test has come at an early stage in Johnson’s premiership and this Government’s tenure. There is always a value for journalists to question and question hard, but never more so when a new executive assumes control. The electorate only gets to hold the Government to account at elections. On behalf of all of us, journalists should do so every day. The collective term “the media” is long defunct. Redtops are businesses, many on-line news sites are lobbying vehicles – the broadcast media is a very disparate landscape now podcasts and social media have such traction. Sometimes as a journalist, who values integrity and accuracy above all things, I struggle to know when is the “right” time to call out failure or mistakes; in the end it is always a question of my judgement, and that is inevitably informed by both data and instinct. The balance between legitimate challenge and “creative” headline seeking is difficult to reach, but many journalists are trying extraordinarily hard to achieve a result that wills serve us all well today and in the future. Which, brings me back to my thank-you. I was involved, albeit, in a minor way, in the inception of the SMC My instinct being then that it was desperately needed. The success the SMC has achieved in building dialogue between journalist and scientists has taken the original concept far beyond my expectations and Fiona, you led that achievement from the start. Your stamina, creativity, leadership and drive has helped me do my job to a much higher standard. Thank-you.
thank you Fiona. This is a really thoughtful piece that captures so much that i have been feeling over the last few weeks
Excellent Karen and thank you for YOUR contributions over the years, especially your advocacy of openness in animal research.
Could this important piece of informed comment on political media coverage of the Pandemic be broadcast to the nation.It would do much to help the general public’s understanding of the problems and negate much of the distorted and confusing political reporting
There have been epidemics and pademics
throughout human history, there have been
around 22. So why all the surprise about Covid19, as if it was the first time for a global pandemic. At 86 I am not surprised!
Amazing what an impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on all industries. The coronavirus is not going away anytime soon, so everyone needs to learn the new normal and adapt. If you are interested in how the pandemic has affected the news industry I invite you to read our blog post. Link below: