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Science Journalists Reflect on Covid-19 Reporting at Virtual HLS Panel

Science and health journalists discussed reporting on scientific uncertainty, misinformation, and advocacy during the Covid-19 pandemic in a webinar hosted by the Harvard Law School Tuesday.
Science and health journalists discussed reporting on scientific uncertainty, misinformation, and advocacy during the Covid-19 pandemic in a webinar hosted by the Harvard Law School Tuesday. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Ariel H. Kim and Devinder S. Sarai, Crimson Staff Writers

Science and health journalists discussed reporting on scientific uncertainty, misinformation, and advocacy during the Covid-19 pandemic in a webinar hosted by the Harvard Law School Tuesday.

The event, entitled “Covid-19, Science, and the Media: Lessons Learned Reporting on the Pandemic,” was hosted by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at HLS. The panel featured journalists from The New York Times, Nature, Science magazine, and The New Orleans Advocate.

Alexandra L. Phelan, a professor at Georgetown University who moderated the event, asked the panelists to reflect on their reporting during the course of the pandemic.

Nature senior reporter Amy Maxmen said during her reporting on systemic failings that led to or exacerbated the pandemic, she found that “data was often lacking” because of an absence of a national data sharing system.

“There’s not a lot of incentives or need for places to share information — like prisons don’t necessarily need to report outbreaks to the CDC,” she said.

Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter for The Times, said she observed “an unprecedented level of misinformation” during the pandemic, which has allowed her to grow as a journalist.

“This pandemic has been an exercise in not just doing journalism, but truth telling and correcting untruths on a pretty regular basis in a way that we don’t necessarily have to do all the time when we’re writing about other things,” she said.

The panelists also discussed reporting on scientific uncertainty in the pandemic, and the best methods to communicate findings to the general public.

Mandavilli said it is important to be transparent and honest with findings, arguing that though many fault the general public’s low scientific literacy for their mistrust in science, public health leaders often “skipped a lot of nuance” and “pretended certainty.”

Kai Kupferschmidt, a Science magazine contributing correspondent, added journalists should advocate for the truth, even in times of uncertainty.

“We can be advocates for trying to get as close as possible to the truth and we do know sometimes when something is not true, and we can be advocates for that nuance,” he said.

Regarding the role of advocacy in journalism, Maxmen said though she is not an opinion writer and does not advocate for her own opinions in her stories, the stories she decides to cover can demonstrate her biases.

In an interview following the event, Petrie-Flom Center communications associate Chloe Reichel — who also introduced the webinar — said public health journalists are up against a wall of public optimism.

“It seems to me that there’s sort of a general public sentiment — vaccines are here, the pandemic is over,” she said. “I don’t know how media outlets will be able to convey the gravity of the situation and the ongoing risk in the face of public sentiments that really just want things to be over.”

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

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HealthHarvard Law SchoolJournalismGlobal HealthCoronavirus