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How can reporters responsibly cover preliminary research on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines?

How can reporters responsibly cover preliminary research on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines?

Picture of Giles Bruce
How can reporters responsibly cover preliminary research on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines?
(Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

As part of its “You Asked, We Answered” series, the Center for Health Journalism has been asking journalists what questions they have about reporting on COVID-19. Multiple reporters recently asked how to go about covering coronavirus claims that have yet to be fully proven, scientifically. Freelance reporter Giles Bruce spoke with experts in science journalism and journalism ethics to get some answers.

Gary Schwitzer says his “blood boils” when he thinks about a story reported by CNN back when he was part of its medical news unit. The network had broadcast the results of a study looking into blood heating as a potential treatment for AIDS.

The research was based on an experiment involving one patient.

“They made national news over that, over my objection,” said Schwitzer, now the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org and an adjunct associate professor of public health at the University of Minnesota. “We don’t learn. That was 1990.”

Schwitzer was similarly displeased with much of the initial coverage in May of an early-phase trial for a possible COVID-19 vaccine made by a biotech company, Moderna. Those reports helped boost the stock market and lifted Moderna’s stock price. But they also provided false optimism to a public starved for hopeful coronavirus information, according to Schwitzer and other news observers.

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“My major piece of advice to anyone encountering preliminary studies is to be skeptical,” said Sharon Dunwoody, a professor emerita of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I think so much can go wrong even with the most carefully designed study, that to rush in early, as we’re seeing with the Moderna study, is potentially misleading to audiences who will be interpreting those stories in a fairly noncritical way.”

Throughout her career, Dunwoody has studied the behavior of science-news consumers.

“We found that audiences overwhelmingly approach stories in a very superficial way,” she said. “It’s hard to get someone to be thorough and effortful and systematic about reading or viewing a story about a risk, even when that risk is to them personally.”

She said news consumers often just take a “glancing blow” at stories, especially when they’re coming from a seemingly credible outlet like a national newspaper or TV network such as CNN.

So she recommends that journalists more carefully evaluate whether to do the story in the first place. If they go ahead with it, they should clearly explain, as high up in the story as possible, the limitations of the study in question. How many subjects were involved? What was the methodology? What were the potential harms (rather than just the benefits)?

And, she added: “A single source story is lethal in a situation like this.” She said reporters must find independent voices, not involved in the research, to comment.

Dunwoody also said journalists should be particularly attentive when reporting on so-called preprint studies, which are research projects that have yet to be peer-reviewed or published in mainstream science journals. This preprint work, which Dunwoody calls the “wild West” of scientific information, has become prevalent in the past few years and even more so during the pandemic, as scientists and the public at large clamor for any positive COVID-19 developments.

She noted that the more media outlets report on a specific study, the more likely it is to be cited in future scientific literature. “There’s a natural tendency to view what we see in public venues as important and true,” she said.

Reporters should also be suspicious of any comments made by scientists at conferences, Dunwoody said.

The same goes for scientists’ statements on their personal Twitter feeds, said Lynn Walsh, chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Nowadays anybody can commit an act of journalism,” she said.

Scientists themselves must be mindful of what they tweet and journalists shouldn’t magnify something potentially inaccurate by retweeting it, she said.

She said she believes it’s valid to report on preliminary research but news outlets have to be clear, even in the headlines, that it is, in fact, preliminary.

“I’ve seen many articles that, when I see the headline, I’m expecting something totally different from what’s in the story,” she said. “Make sure it isn’t overstating what the study is.”

While reporters often don’t write their own headlines, Walsh said they should “over-communicate” to their editors, as well as to their digital and social teams, what information should be included in headlines and posts so the audience isn’t misled.

Walsh also recommends adding explainers to stories about early-stage research, with details on what each phase of the study entails and how long it will take to complete.

In his nearly five decades in the field, Schwitzer, of HealthNewsReview.org, said the last time there was so much uncertainty in science and medical reporting was when the HIV/AIDS epidemic surfaced in the 1980s.

But he calls the situation today a “perfect storm for misinformation.”

“Everyone’s racing, everyone’s overworked, and everyone’s competing,” he said. “That company, Moderna, wants to be first, so they want the news out. The federal agency working with them on that trial has the president breathing down their neck, wanting to point to any vaccine so he can open more businesses and get the economy back on track. And then you have what journalists are facing: It’s sickening, every single day, to read of cutbacks and layoffs. And the people who are left in the newsroom are facing whopping quotas and expectations from their editors.”

In that atmosphere, journalists with no experience writing about medicine and science are expected to report on the biggest health story of their lifetimes. “There comes a point in a given news organization that if you can’t cover health and medical news correctly, you shouldn’t be doing it at all,” Schwitzer said.

Schwitzer said “some of the big boys and girls” are doing “tremendous work,” citing the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, ProPublica and Kaiser Health News as examples. “I think we are simultaneously seeing some of the best scientific journalism we’ve ever seen, but clearly some of the worst we’ve seen,” he said.

He suggests journalists covering COVID-19 have independent, unbiased experts — professors from local medical or public health schools, biostatisticians, even primary care doctors — they can consult, on deadline, about the latest coronavirus study.

News outlets might also have a special segment or section dedicated to beginning-stage research, Schwitzer said: They might call it something like “not-ready-for-prime-time” news.

That’s how Schwitzer would describe the recent reports on the potential vaccine. The results, announced in a conference call, were based on only eight people who had completed the study’s first phase, designed to test only for safety, not efficacy.

His main piece of advice: “Don’t project certainty where certainty simply doesn’t exist.”

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