Covering COVID; Scientific Illiteracy and the Media’s Response to the Pandemic

The pandemic is testing the intermediary role journalists play between government officials and the public. Scientific illiteracy in news media isn’t as simple as reporters not doing their due diligence and practicing responsible journalism. Sometimes, journalists don’t ask the right questions to the right people.

In the United States, the President is making it difficult to access the experts guiding pandemic response efforts. American journalists were forced into a position where they had to actively warn the public against advice coming from the White House after the President proposed ingesting toxic disinfectants to treat the virus. Even before #BleachGate, CNN and MSNBC toyed with the idea of skipping the White House daily briefings, with some on social media suggesting that it is unethical for cable news to air them knowing the misinformation they come with.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force, at the start of the pandemic

Access to the correct information can be life-saving. When information is changing near-daily, and the public relies on the media to receive said information, it doesn’t take long before people blame journalists for the uncertainty.

On April 23, the Modern Literature and Culture (MLC) Research Centre in Toronto hosted an online webinar discussing media and storytelling in the age of COVID-19. One of the topics presented was the general scientific illiteracy within the media that is making it very difficult to report on COVID-related unpredictability. Brian Winston, Chair of the Lincoln School of Film and Media in the U.K., noted that journalists not having the tools to challenge scientific “opinion” presented by politicians is a disservice to the public that relies on them for information. “While it’s not our job to fix these policies,” he explained, “it is our job to be able to point out fallacies.”

There are questions, however, that the media can’t answer. A lack of scientific journalists means that newsrooms don’t have the domain-specific knowledge needed to break down information coming from medical professionals or challenge any “fallacies” from politicians. General assignment or political journalists only know what epidemiologists tell them.

In Canada, COVID-19 was cautiously unpoliticized in the pandemic’s first few months, with the Liberals and Conservatives in general agreement on the social distancing protocols in place and the federal government’s response. The only sort of back-and-forths the public has seen between party leaders has been in response to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s financial relief efforts, allowing journalists to report more thoroughly on policy, as opposed to pandemic political theatre.

Meanwhile, in the United States, issues regarding testing, ventilators and accessibility to treatment have devolved into partisan politics, where coverage of the virus is now synonymous with coverage of the Trump administration’s age-old battles with journalists. For weeks, CNN has been marketing Dr. Sanjay Gupta as their in-house COVID-19 authority. Since the stay-at-home orders, he’s been more visible on primetime than their news anchors. Over on Fox News, hosts such as Laura Ingraham have pivoted back to complaining about partisan attacks on the President, urging the complete “re-opening” of the U.S. economy as governors, the White House and the scientific community continue to disagree on the next steps publicly. At the same time, journalists question the President’s half-truths, and the science is often lost behind America’s favourite pastime: watching Donald Trump and the mainstream media go head-to-head.

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci

Donald Trump does not seem to understand the science behind COVID-19, so why do journalists continue to ask him questions rather than focusing on the scientists behind the podium? Up north, Dr. Theresa Tham, Canada’s Chief Medical Officer, has emerged as the de facto face of the pandemic. Canadian media has been more than happy to focus on her. Still, the President is not as willing to let Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, grasp the national spotlight. Regardless of the difference in political and media cultures between Canada and the United States, journalists have a responsibility to the public and should press for answers from health officials.

Following #BleachGate, the White House announced it would scale back the daily briefings as fears from Republicans continue to grow over its political repercussions. As the public places more pressure on the media for increased national and community coverage, it is more vital than ever to focus on science rather than the distractions around it.

These are unprecedented times. Let us record them accurately.

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