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What the media needs to get right in the next pandemic

Journalists struggled to accurately convey scientific uncertainty on Covid-19.

WHO press conference
Experts from the WHO-China joint team Mi Feng, Liang Wannian, Peter Ben Embarek and Marion Koopmans attend the WHO-China Joint Study Press Conference on February 9, 2021 in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. 
China News Service via Getty Ima
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

The media has come under harsh scrutiny for how it has covered Covid-19, for good and sometimes for unfair reasons. It is absolutely true that covering a fast-moving pandemic in an age when science is being done at a record cadence and under an unrelenting spotlight is a truly difficult job. But mistakes under duress are mistakes nonetheless, and the only way we get better at this job is to learn from them.

One recurring theme in the media missteps over the pandemic is a failure to think through and convey uncertainty to readers. And one glaring example of how many journalists and outlets failed the public is in its coverage of the so-called lab leak theory of Covid-19’s origins.

This became freshly relevant again recently when Vanity Fair published a fairly stunning piece of reporting by Katherine Eban on the long and ugly fight among scientists and officials over the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

It’s worth remembering how initial reports of the lab leak theory were met by the press when it first started trickling out in the earliest months of the pandemic. At the time, it was widely agreed that China was likely concealing information about the origins of the pandemic, just as it had originally downplayed the virus itself.

At the same time, there was plenty of nonsense floating around, like claims that Covid-19 was closely related to HIV (it’s not) or that it was engineered by Bill Gates (also a no). When Republican Sen. Tom Cotton speculated that Covid could have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) lab, many scientists condemned that as the same conspiratorial nonsense, and many journalists echoed them.

That includes me — I published an article on February 6, 2020, warning that the coronavirus might turn out to be a big deal. I’m proud of it overall, but less so about the part where I referenced the “conspiracy theory” that the virus was from a Wuhan lab.

But lab origins weren’t a conspiracy theory — they were a credible scientific hypothesis, at a moment when we knew very little, for how Covid-19 could have originated. The WIV was conducting research on SARS-like coronaviruses, and we later learned that shortly before the pandemic began they took offline a massive database of viruses they’d studied.

As was well known at the time, China’s government had a history of lying and covering up disease outbreaks, including the original SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which was always going to make it very difficult to get to the bottom of a situation like this one.

Privately, Eban found, a few scientists were writing to each other that there may have been a lab origin for Covid-19. But publicly, they said something different, shutting the door on the lab origins theory.

It’s not that they were covering up clear-cut evidence of a lab origin. Instead, there seemed to be a push to prematurely resolve the conversation — perhaps out of a sense that the public couldn’t be trusted to handle uncertainty.

Why we need to get better at living with uncertainty

This isn’t just a question of media or science criticism — it’s a big problem for our faltering efforts to prepare for the next pandemic.

The fact is that we don’t have enough evidence, one way or another, to prove definitively whether Covid-19 originated in a lab or in the wild. And that’s okay. We should be comfortable with communicating that uncertainty.

Covid origins are far from the only story during the pandemic where there were efforts to put forward a “‘united front”’ or an appearance of scientists all agreeing, when in fact the science was uncertain and the scientists did disagree.

The attitudes that are lacking here — tolerance of uncertainty, a willingness to withhold reassuring but incomplete answers, and courage to admit past mistakes — are attitudes that we’ll need to adopt to do better in the next pandemic.

But the uncertainty challenge goes the other way, too. All too often, communicators seemed a bit too timid to put forward provisional conclusions based on the available evidence, sometimes waiting for the definitive word from a very conservative and sclerotic CDC before hitting “publish.”

In February 2021, people wanted to know whether vaccines reduced the odds you’d pass on Covid to another person. There was some preliminary evidence that they did. But since the evidence wasn’t certain, and since they didn’t want vaccinated people to abandon all caution, a lot of public health communicators were reluctant to say anything about the topic.

I wrote an article on the growing evidence that vaccines reduced transmission, a theory that turned out to be accurate, though it was months before the CDC came to the same conclusion.

Efforts to create a “united front” are meant to reduce misinformation and confusion, but sometimes they end up causing it, as everyone waits to see what everyone else is saying. I’ve come to believe it’s better to directly and publicly explain what you believe and why, while acknowledging disagreement where relevant.

Reviving trust in the media

From the start of the pandemic, health officials made questionable pronouncements at times, often amplified by the media. First, some officials told us to worry more about the flu. Then we were told not to buy masks. The reversals on those and other questions may have contributed to declining trust in our public health establishment and the media.

Instead of trying to present a united front, scientists should say that there is disagreement, and explain what specifically the disagreement is about. And instead of trying to present readers with “the answer” on big questions like the origins of Covid, journalists should get comfortable saying that we do not know for sure, sharing what evidence we have, and being okay with not knowing.

Experts should also get more comfortable disagreeing with other experts publicly when they disagree privately. One painful lesson has been that our public health officials are only human, and a recurring theme in Eban’s piece is that they often had large disparities between what they believed privately and what they said publicly.

Based on the discourse about the lab leak theory, it’s not clear we’ve learned the lessons above. We need to adapt — quickly — if we want to do better in the next pandemic.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!