Published On November 11, 2022
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, my profession moved to center stage. Science reporters like me had spent our careers helping people make sense of the world of research and medicine, and suddenly we faced a story that had the undivided attention of a global audience. It was all hands on deck. As medical professionals ran their own gauntlet of long hours and uncertainty, we also felt a sense of purpose and preparation for a role that would be tough and sometimes thankless in the months ahead.
Science writers are trained to understand complex facts, map out what’s known and what remains uncertain, and make all of it digestible for readers. “Science reporters help people understand reality in a way that captures the best knowledge of the moment,” says Scientific American editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth. As the pandemic took hold, our work was essential in helping a wide swath of the nonscientist public, including policymakers, grasp what was happening so that they could make informed decisions.
Our profession aims to help society navigate complex issues where science plays a role. It didn’t start with the pandemic, nor will it stop there. As the climate crisis hits home in the form of fires, floods and global heat waves, for instance, science reporters are tasked with explaining the forces behind these catastrophes without shortchanging the complexities and unanswered questions that researchers continue to grapple with.
Yet just when the need for good science writing is greater than ever, it is increasingly under attack. The explosion of social media, with its ecosystems of alternative news and disinformation, has made the public skeptical about, if not openly hostile to, the very notion of scientific fact and those who present it. As every species of medical fact has been questioned, so too have the writers faithfully trying to present those facts.
Across the journalistic profession—just as in public health—many of us have tried to trace what has gone wrong over the past few years. In the pandemic’s early days, as scientists raced to learn about an entirely new virus, questions arose much faster than answers could be delivered. Hungry for guidance, people snapped up simplistic half-truths, which the purveyors of misinformation were only too happy to supply. Science writers were then, as always, working out the trickier outlines of the facts—which are nearly always complicated, unsettled and slow to come into focus. It was perhaps not surprising which option the public gravitated to. “We’re in the middle of an epic battle between sense and nonsense,” says Helmuth.
When science writers publish their work, the response to even the most well-researched, articulately delivered pieces is likely to be mixed. In 2021, I wrote a story for Nature explaining the complex science of herd immunity, when a sufficient proportion of the population becomes immune to an infectious disease, either through vaccination or exposure, so that it fades away for lack of new hosts. My story explained why scientists had come to see herd immunity as an unreachable goal for COVID-19. Some readers thanked me for providing a path through a difficult, confusing topic, and the piece became the journal’s most-read news story of the year. Yet others wrongly pointed to the story as evidence supporting what they already believed—that vaccines didn’t work.
Sometimes the most important thing a science writer can do is harness the firehose of information into a cohesive narrative. Ed Yong, a science writer at The Atlantic, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on COVID-19. “Ed’s coverage has been meaningful for a lot of people,” says Daniel Engber, senior editor at The Atlantic. What made some of his most influential stories so important, Engber says, wasn’t that he was always breaking news. It was that he provided a trusted voice that could help make sense of a confusing time. “There is real value in being able to frame things for people and deliver the information with clarity and authority,” Engber says. “That’s something in particular that science journalists can do.”
When science writing does break through, it often does so by “telling” science in ways the human brain can more easily process. Narrative storytelling, for instance, sometimes does a better job of helping people grasp complex scientific information, a finding borne out by research into how public health agencies can convey the importance of vaccines. Where data can be cold, human stories can connect.
One very public lesson from the past few years has been how difficult it is to convey findings when there is conflict or disagreement among researchers. Yet this has always been part of the beat. In 2014, I wrote in Proto about the challenges of treating a breast condition called ductal carcinoma in situ. Emerging evidence suggested that this precancerous condition was being overtreated, with women receiving aggressive therapy they didn’t need, but experts disagreed about the extent of the problem and how to address it. The best way I have found to report on conflicting points of view is to look for where consensus exists, explain the questions at stake and lay out the points of contention. But even when I do that, readers will sometimes take a balanced article and weaponize it on behalf of their own point of view.
Another recent lesson has been the importance—both to medicine and to the public—of questioning powerful voices. Around Thanksgiving in 2020, as people considered whether it was safe to gather with their families for the holiday, many state officials advised against it, asserting that small gatherings were driving this phase of the pandemic. But New York Times science and global health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli wasn’t convinced that small gatherings were the biggest problem. Statistics released by most states showed that it was primarily religious services, indoor dining and sporting events that were spreading the contagion, Mandavilli says.
Despite that evidence, however, a Midwestern governor issued an executive order prohibiting people from different households gathering indoors or even outdoors, although it was clear by then that being outdoors greatly reduced the chances of spreading COVID-19. Yet the order allowed places of worship and wedding venues to have as many as 250 people inside. This guidance didn’t square with the evidence, and Mandavilli said so. Yet she caught grief from some researchers for parts of her piece. The story is going to encourage people to go out to parties, some told her, and one prominent scientist tweeted simply, “Do better, @nytimes.” But Mandavilli stood firm. “As journalists, it’s our job to push back when messaging from experts doesn’t align with the evidence,” she says.
This responsibility also extends to fact-checking members of the medical field who might be speaking outside of their field or expertise or have conflicts of interest, says Amy Maxmen, a winner of the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting in 2021. Some doctors with no training in infectious diseases have nevertheless felt free to opine on how COVID-19 spreads, what drugs should be used to treat it and whether vaccines have any value. The problem extends beyond medicine, as a leader of the movement to deny human-made climate change was an esteemed physicist commenting on science far outside his field.
In looking at medicine, science reporters also must watch for flawed methods and dubious data. In April 2020, for example, former BuzzFeed science reporter Stephanie Lee began looking into a study that gave antibody tests to residents of Santa Clara County, California. At the time, such tests were being used to show whether a person may have been infected by COVID-19, and the results of the study, which was not peer-reviewed at the time, seemed to show that the new coronavirus had already infected many more people than previously believed. The study authors, which included prominent researchers from Stanford University, used those results to argue that the death rate from the new virus was far lower than public health experts were saying. Lee dug into critiques of the study by other scientists and found serious flaws in its methodology. She eventually uncovered damning evidence that the study had received funding from a prominent airline owner who had a vested interest in promoting research that could help end pandemic shutdowns.
Scientific American recently highlighted another important role for science reporting when it revised its mission statement to state that in addition to “sharing trustworthy knowledge” and “enhancing our understanding of the world,” it is also committed to “advancing social justice.” Helmuth says this updated mission means, for example, covering health disparities and the effects of racism on the impact of the pandemic, and bringing inclusivity and equity to the publication’s science coverage.
For many polarizing political issues, media coverage often tends to focus on what people believe or what their values are, Helmuth says. But science can also probe underlying factors that may affect those issues, and science reporters can bring these bodies of evidence to light and help people understand them. Consider the current claims that allowing gender-conforming care for transgender kids is akin to child abuse, and critics’ insistence that these children will later wish they hadn’t received the care. “The science is absolutely the opposite,” Helmuth says. Research shows that denying children gender-conforming care is dangerous and can lead to an increased risk of suicide. In contrast, “providing care that’s appropriate to their age and their gender expression is actually a really good way to turn them into well-adjusted, happy people,” she says.
Over the past few years, science reporting—like medicine itself—has received a drubbing. Many in our field are burned out. For those who remain, it is important to remember why we are here: Science reporting helps us to see the world as it really is. While those with dubious agendas and misinformation will never be truly stopped, we must believe that reality will assert itself in the end. It is the slow, steady job of science writers to bring that reality into view—even when the news is unwelcome.
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