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'Dreck,' Drama: How U.S. Media Handled the Pandemic

photo of coronavirus headlines

For well over a year, COVID-19 has been the biggest story in the world, as the pandemic claimed millions of lives, impacted a presidential election, and caused economies around the world to quake.

But as vaccination rates increase and restrictions relax across the United States, relief is beginning to mix with reflection. Part of that contemplation means grappling with how the media depicted the crisis -- in ways that were helpful, harmful, and somewhere in between.

“This story was so overwhelming and the amount of journalism done about it was also overwhelming and it’s going to be a while before we can do any kind of comprehensive overview of how journalism really performed,” says Maryn McKenna, an independent journalist and journalism professor at Emory University in Atlanta, who specializes in public and global health.

Some ‘Heroically Good’ Reporting

The pandemic hit at a time when journalism was under pressure from external forces — labelled for years by Donald Trump, both as a candidate and as president, as “enemies of the people,” swimming through a sea of misinformation, and pressed by financial pressure to produce more stories more quickly, said Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

The pandemic also drove enormous audiences to news outlets as people searched for reliable information and increased the appreciation many people felt for the work of journalists, she said.

“I think there’s been some heroically good reporting and some really empathetic reporting as well,” says Bell. She cites TheNew York Times stories honoring the nearly 100,000 people lost to COVID-19 in May 2020 and The Atlantic ’s COVID Tracking Project as exceptionally good examples.

Journalism is part of a complex, and evolving, information ecosystem characterized by “traditional” television, radio, and newspapers but also online news sites, social media, search engine results, and clickbait sites.

On the one hand, social media provided a way for doctors, nurses, and scientists to speak directly to the world about their experiences and research. On the other, it's challenging to elevate the really good work of traditional media over all of the bad or unhelpful signals, Bell says.

Much of journalism is a business. Most established news outlets constantly juggle the need for more readers and viewers with the desire to maintain their own standards. There are incentives in the market for tabloids to do sensational coverage and for outlets to push misleading, clickbait headlines, Bell says.

“Sometimes we’ll criticize journalists for ‘getting it wrong,’ but they might be getting it right in their business model, but getting it wrong in terms of what it's doing for society,” she says.

“We need to do a self-examination on when or if the dust from this ever settles [on] how much of the past year was viewed as a business opportunity and did that get in the way of informing the public adequately,” McKenna said.

Digital news sources and journalists also need to reflect on how narratives build on one another, particularly online, Bell says. If you search for side effects of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for example, you’re going to see dozens of headlines that might give you the impression this is a major problem without the context that these effects are exceedingly rare, she notes.

There was also a personnel problem. Shrinking newsrooms over the last decade meant many outlets didn’t have dedicated science and health reporters, or very few staffers if any. During the pandemic, suddenly general assignment and political reporters had to be science and health reporters, too.

“You have a hard-enough time with these issues if you’re a fairly seasoned science journalist,” says Gary Schwitzer, a former head of the health care news unit for CNN, journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, and founder of the watchdog site HealthNewsReview.org.

And outlets that had the staffing didn’t always put science reporters to full use, McKenna said. In March and April of 2020, major media outlets should have sent science reporters, not politics reporters, to President Trump’s White House press briefings, which often included incorrect statements about COVID-19 science.

“I just don’t feel that the big outlets understood that that expertise would have made a difference,” she said.

New Challenges, Old Problems

Some of the science journalism done during the pandemic has been some of the best ever seen in this country, Schwitzer says. But between the peaks of excellence, there is “the daily drumbeat coverage of dreck,” he added.

Many of the issues with this dreck coverage aren’t new or unique to the pandemic. For example, over the last year there have been far too many news stories based solely on weak information sources, like a drug company press release or a not yet peer reviewed preprint article that hasn’t been put into proper context, Schwitzer says.

A quality science story should always include an independent perspective, he says, but many COVID-19 stories lacked that core need. This isn’t a new issue for science coverage — at Health News Review, Schwitzer and his colleagues have seen stories without appropriate independent sources every day for 15 years.

It’s also challenging to write about uncertainty without over- or under-selling what scientists know about a particular phenomenon.

“We know that the media in general tends to portray science as more certain than it is,” says Dominique Brossard, PhD, professor and department chair at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on the intersection between science, media, and policy. This can lead to confusion when the science, and the advice based on that science, changes.

“The public has a really difficult time understanding what uncertainty means within science,” said Todd P. Newman, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, who studies strategic communication within the context of science, technology, and the environment.

“I think the media generally has been good on the subject,” said Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center, attending physician in the Division of Infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and a prominent expert voice throughout the pandemic. “I think where they’ve been imperfect is they tend to be a little more dramatic in terms of how we’re doing.”

Offit isn’t the only expert to point to the drama of COVID-19 coverage. A study published in March 2021 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found 87%of stories by major US media outlets leaned negative in the tone of their COVID-19 reporting, compared with 50%of stories from non-U.S. major outlets and 64% of articles in scientific journals. The negative emphasis persists even around positive developments, like vaccine trials and school re-openings.

John Whyte, MD, chief medical officer for WebMD, said he is proud of the way WebMD and its sister site, Medscape, ramped up production of video series and other content to give health care providers the most up-to-date guidance on a rapidly evolving medical situation.

"But I think as [we] started to make progress, especially in the last 6 months, the coverage was never balanced enough. Any positive news was immediately proceeded by negative," he says.

“You want to be honest but you also don’t want to be alarmist, and that’s where I think the challenge is at times in the media,” Whyte says. “We didn’t put enough optimism in at times, especially in recent months.”

For example, he says, "any good coverage on vaccines immediately [was] covered by [we] might need boosters in the fall. Why can’t we have an opportunity to breathe for a little while and see the good news?"

Variants or Scariants?

Negativity and fear shaped much of the coverage around variants and vaccines earlier this year. In February 2021, Zeynep Tufekci, PhD, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, wrote in The Atlantic about how much reporting has not reflected “the truly amazing reality of these vaccines,” and has instead highlighted “a chorus of relentless pessimism.”

This felt especially true earlier in 2021, when lots of coverage repeatedly emphasized what vaccinated people still could not do.

Eric Topol, MD, editor in chief of Medscape and executive vice president of Scripps Research in La Jolla, CA says New York Times editors told him earlier in the pandemic that he couldn’t use the word “scariant” in an opinion piece about the media’s overly fearful and sometimes inaccurate reporting around COVID-19 variants because they worried it would seem like the Times was going after other media outlets.

“A variant is innocent until proven guilty,” Topol says. Had journalists approached the subject from that point of view, he says we would have seen “much more faithful reporting.”

Brossard and Newman worry that focusing on uncommon negative behavior, like people who break social distancing and mask rules by gathering at the beach or the bar, makes those actions seem more common than they actually are.

The evidence suggests that “if you show these kinds of things to people you encourage them to do the same behavior,” said Brossard.

There have been other mistakes along the way, too. Early in the pandemic, many outlets pointed viewers to official government sources of information, some of which, like the White House press briefings in March and April of 2020, ended up being some of the most virulent spreaders of misinformation, Bell says.

Before that, a handful of journalists like Roxanne Khamsi were the few pushing back against the dominant media narrative in early 2020 that the novel coronavirus was less concerning than the seasonal flu.

“Science journalists have always been writing about studies that sometimes contradict each other, and what’s happened is that has only been condensed in time,” says Khamsi, a health care reporter for outlets like WIRED magazine and The New York Times and former chief news editor for Nature Medicine.

Politics and Misinformation

It’s impossible to talk about media coverage of COVID-19 without touching on politics and misinformation.

Coverage of the pandemic was politicized and polarized from the very beginning, said Sedonna Chinn, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who researches the prevalence and effects of scientific disagreements in media.

By looking at network news transcripts and articles from national outlets like TheWashington Post and The New York Times, Chinn and her colleagues were able to determine politicization of coverage by counting the mentions of politicians versus scientists in COVID-19 coverage, and polarization by looking at how different or similar the language was surrounding mentions of Republicans and Democrats.

If the two parties were working together or on the same page, they reasoned, the language would be similar.

From mid-March through May 2020, Chinn and fellow researchers found politicians were featured more often than scientists in newspaper coverage and as frequently as scientists in network news coverage. They also found polarized language around Republicans and Democrats, particularly in stories describing duels between the (at the time) Republican national government and Democratic state and local leaders.

It’s possible that polarization in news coverage helped contributed to polarized attitudes around the virus, the authors write in the study, which was published in August 2020 in the journal Science Communication.

The politicization and polarization of the issue is mirrored in our fractured media environment, where people tend to read, listen, and watch outlets that align with their political leanings. If that trusted outlet features misinformation, the people who follow it are more likely to accept that false information as truth, says Matt Motta, PhD, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University whose research includes public opinion and science communication.

This is true across the political spectrum, he says. When it comes to COVID-19, however, right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart are more likely to promote conspiratorial tropes and misinformation about the pandemic, according to Motta and his collaborator Dominik Stecula, PhD, a political scientist at Colorado State University who studies the news media environment and its effects on society.

Across the media ecosystem, reporting on the “infodemic” accompanying the pandemic -- the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation about the virus -- has been a major challenge. Outlets may not be creating the misinformation, but they are the ones choosing to give it a platform, Motta says.

By repeating a false idea, even with the goal of debunking it, you can unintentionally cause the information to stick in people’s minds, Brossard says.

“Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean it’s worth covering,” says Motta. Using vaccines as an example, he says many reporters and scientists alike assume that if people have all the facts, they’ll land on the side of science.

“That is just fundamentally not how people think about the decision to get vaccinated,” he says. Instead, the choice is wrapped up with cultural factors, religious beliefs, political identity, and more.

The factors and challenges that shaped the media’s coverage of the pandemic aren’t going anywhere. Improving science and medical coverage in the future is a collective project for journalists, scientists, and everyone in between, Newman says.

“I call on scientists too to think really deeply about how they’re communicating, and especially how they’re communicating what they know and don’t know,” he says.

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