In July, newspaper columnist, self-proclaimed defender of free speech and all-round unpleasant person Toby Young wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph. Had the claims Young made in this column – that London was close to the herd immunity threshold for Covid-19 infections and that many people had cross-immunity to Covid due to prior infection with common cold coronaviruses – been true, it would have been lovely. Unfortunately, it is now quite obvious they were not. There is no way of discovering whether any infections occurred as a result of people failing to take precautions because they believed what Young wrote, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Young’s wilful misinterpretation of scientific evidence then emerging about what neuroscientist Karl Friston called ‘immunological dark matter’ was likely a result of his anti-lockdown views which do not come from science but instead from his libertarian right-wing politics. The intersection of science and ideology engendered by the pandemic has presented novel (dare I say unprecedented) challenges for journalism; challenges which have arguably not been handled particularly well.
Newspapers (and news websites) need to attract readers to continue existing, and thus they need to reflect the views of their readership and produce readable articles. It is more interesting to hear someone like Toby Young railing against lockdowns than it is to read statistical analysis of infection rates, even if the statistical analysis can tell you more. This is especially the case if your politics align with his, as is likely the case for some Telegraph readers. Young is a particularly outlandish example because he crossed the line into active untruths, but the media has arguably been consistently amplifying extreme views on the pandemic, probably because it sells better.
Professor of Mathematics at the University of Bristol, Oliver Johnson, has repeatedly made this criticism on Twitter. He accuses the media of creating a polarised debate to maximise views and thus misrepresenting the science. There have obviously been paradigm shifts as a result of challenger scientists (Galileo, for example) but generally wildly disagreeing with scientific consensus doesn’t make you a genius, it makes you wrong.
Despite this, we hear more about the extreme positions of Zero Covid or the Great Barrington Declaration than the basic consensus. It is particularly concerning that a policy widely derided as wholly impractical and which was funded by libertarian think tank the American Institute for Economic Research (conflict of interest, anyone?) gets more media attention than the middle ground that the vast majority of scientists take. According to Prof. Johnson, Graph 1 is an accurate representation of scientist’s views and Graph 2 is what the media shows. A wide-ranging debate is obviously important but the views of vocal minorities should not be given equal weight to the scientific majority.
It was the Telegraph that published Young and his lies, but all media organisations are guilty of misrepresenting the debate. This isn’t done maliciously, but it can be harmful. Obviously, if you amplify voices saying Covid is a hoax or that the best policy is herd immunity, people who believe you might well stop taking necessary precautions, but if you continually tell people there’s no way out of the pandemic they may simply give up on the guidance out of hopelessness.
The lack of understanding of the significance of consensus in science is one of the biggest problems with reporting on the pandemic, but it is far from the only one. All scientists know that science is hardly ever certain, but this is anathema to journalists who want punchy headlines, not doubt. Resultant coverage lacking in nuance leads people to expect a certainty from science that it isn’t designed to deliver.
The chasm between how science works and how journalists report it is particularly troublesome when it comes to modelling. Models have an important role to play in determining policy in a pandemic, because it is impossible to wait for all the data. However, they are hardly ever entirely accurate, which elements of the media conveniently forget. Epidemiologists produce models to help shape policy, but the media are more likely to use them either to make gruesome predictions of a bleak future or to accuse scientists of deceiving the public if the numbers turn out to be slightly wrong.
When positive results started coming in from vaccine trials at the end of last year, it was (not to quote Boris Johnson) finally some light at the end of the tunnel. But sadly, as vaccinations rise, so too does the volume of vaccine-related sensationalist stories in the media.
Take for example French President Emmanuel Macron claiming the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” in over-65s. This followed hot on the heels of a German newspaper reporting concerns in government that the same vaccine was only 8% effective in the elderly, a figure that confused everyone until it emerged it was actually the percentage of over-65s in the trial group. Neither of these claims were based in reality – but they got a lot of attention.
When faced with these claims, scientists responded that there was convincing evidence pointing towards a strong immune response in the over-65s. But endless reporting, in particular of Macron’s claim, is likely to have sowed doubt in some minds. A baseless assertion by someone without a scientific background got more media attention than results released yesterday that the Oxford vaccine may reduce virus transmission by around 67%, despite the second story being arguably much more important.
The obvious question here is what can be done about this. It is not the case that the government, or scientists, or random angry people should be able to dictate what the media does or doesn’t cover, because having a free press is vital in a democracy. But inaccurate reporting is damaging, even more so in a pandemic, so there should be higher standards for scientific coverage.
Constant debate between the most extreme people you can find might sell well, but it doesn’t inform anyone. Going back to Toby Young, it might seem at first glance that he was an aberration, his column an isolated incident of a newspaper unintentionally publishing lies. Sadly though, he’s just the tip of the iceberg. Young specifically neglected his responsibility as a journalist not to deceive people, but a media that have elevated uninformed voices like his over representatives of the scientific consensus are generally complicit in the resultant distortion of public discourse. The media cannot continue to shirk their responsibilities. They must do better.