This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
I’m not on social media, but since the start of COVID-19, I have been finishing emails and texts with friends and family with this – #humilityneeded. I started using it at the end of January when some friends were concluding that the media coverage was sensationalising the risks of the virus arriving in the UK. It came out again when people started sending multiple opinion pieces boldly asserting which bits of the UK strategy were right or wrong. In a rather troubling sign of the impact of lockdown on me, I now find myself saying my hashtag out loud as my already obsessive news consumption rises to new levels. As someone known for embracing strong views and the questioning of authority, why this sudden penchant for humility? The answer is COVID-19. Or more particularly, how little we know about it and how much complexity and uncertainty still surrounds it.
I have spent much of this crisis praising the science and health reporting, which remains excellent. But in recent weeks, I have seen it taking a back seat to political reporting, and I just have this sense that the standard norms of political journalism might not be quite right for reporting on a virus of such epic uncertainty and unknowns.
Don’t get me wrong. The sheer scale of the tragedy playing out in front of us makes critical journalism more important than ever. Nor am I in the camp saying these questions should be suspended until we get to the other side. What I am struggling with though is the tone of some of the reporting, most especially from the political reporters now dominating the coverage. There is a kind of moral certainty in some of the questions that feels misplaced. A demand for certainty where there just isn’t any. A clamour for answers which do not yet exist.
Freddie Sayers, a brilliant young journalist and Executive Editor of UnHerd, recently talked about his time working as a political journalist in the lobby at a debate about media coverage of COVID-19. He described how a good day for a political reporter is catching the government out; a better day still is proving they are lying; and there are extra points for getting a ‘scalp’ – an unsavoury word for the stories that force a minister to resign. In his rather understated manner, Sayers mused as to whether this kind of political reporting was equal to the challenge of the times.
In deference to my own hashtag I am happy to be told I’ve got this wrong, but I tend to agree with Sayers. The SMC has become a first port of call for science and health journalists asking questions and gathering comments from the UK’s leading scientists. My main insight from this vantage point is that, despite four months of intensive research by many of the world’s cleverest scientists, there are still fundamental things we don’t understand about the new coronavirus. I know lists are terrible in articles, but as this is my own blog, please indulge me. Here’s my incomplete list of what we don’t yet know about this virus:
How it behaves in the human body
How it affects our immune defences
Why it has such a different impact on different age groups
Why it has such a disproportionate impact on BAME groups
Why some people are asymptomatic but others end up in critical care or worse
Whether children get enough of the virus to infect adults
Whether face masks play a role in reducing infection
If the two metre social distancing rule is sufficiently evidence based
Exactly how the virus is passed from one person to another – whether the virus is airborne or only transmitted by coughs and sneezes
Whether those infected will develop immunity and, if so, how long it will last
When we asked scientists why this virus was proving so elusive to understand, Dr Jonathan Stoye, from the Francis Crick Institute, gently rebuked us for expecting scientists to have fully understood a new virus in four months. “We have been studying other viruses that cause disease, such as HIV-1, for a much greater period of time; remarkable progress has been made but without a final cure. As various people are supposed to have said, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer”.
I list these unknowns not to depress you – in fact, one scientist described the worldwide scientific effort to understand the virus in just four months as “stupendous”. I list them because being mired in these questions every day might explain why I find the ‘isn’t it obvious’ or ‘why did we not do this before’ style of questioning jarring.
The month-long focus on whether the government would meet its 100,000 testing target is a good example of what I am getting at. While politicians and reporters did their daily dance around the arbitrary number, scientists made my head spin with their patient explanations of the scientific challenges around testing. Apparently, it’s widely accepted that the accuracy of the ‘have I got it’ test is high, but there are questions that remain: whether they are being used in the most important way; when and why people need a second test; exactly what the false positive/false negative rates are; if different labs have different levels of accuracy and if so why; the time lag between the test and the results; etc. And that’s only the first test.
The other ‘have I had it’ test will be useful for scientific serological studies to help us understand the proportion of the population who have been infected and which sectors and regions have had more of the virus. Additionally, there is excitement about these tests because it’s often reported that the presence of antibodies means the individual has immunity and could therefore return to normal society. But guess what? It’s not that simple. We still don’t know whether the tests are accurate and sensitive enough; how immunity to this new coronavirus works; whether everyone produce antibodies; whether people differ in the amount of antibodies produced; whether the antibody response is linked to the severity of illness; whether antibodies actually convey immunity; how long immunity lasts for; etc.
You could forgive journalists for preferring to play the numbers and targets game rather than having to report this complexity. But in so doing, I’m not convinced they are properly explaining anything of real value about testing to the public.
There are some straightforward political questions that demand answers, and I have no desire to let the government off the hook here. The failure to put established pandemic preparedness plans in place early enough and the slow response to the WHO’s ‘test, test, test’ mantra are just two examples of questions rightly put to politicians. But many of the big decisions still rest on our progress in understanding the virus and frankly none of us yet fully understand it. Not the scientists, not the politicians, and not the journalists. So maybe we just need to all stop pretending we do. Doubtless politicians are spinning and hiding plenty as they always have. But somehow the ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me’ approach feels a little off beam. At the 16 SMC press conferences we have so far run on COVID-19 the science and health journalists are free to ask anything they like and often ask probing questions. There is another way of doing things.
And there are other ways in which political reporting is not well suited to the task in hand. I, and others, have pointed out that reports of a government ‘U-turn’ on moving into lockdown, partly informed by the Imperial College models published on 16 March, were bizarre. When the data changes, the science changes. When it changes again, the science changes again. That’s the way science works. I am firmly in the Churchill camp of science ‘on tap, not on top’, and I am now nervous that the ‘we are following the scientific advice’ mantra is code for ‘we will blame science if this goes horribly wrong’. However even with this view, it’s clear to me that the decision to move to suppression was not the kind of policy U-turn beloved of political journalists and despised by Margaret Thatcher. While political hacks gleefully reported the move to lockdown as proof that the previous approach had failed, the science reporters were compiling four page pull-outs explaining the Imperial modelling paper and getting page hits into the millions. Of course COVID-19 isn’t just about science and there is plenty in the story to keep the political and economics reporters busy. But political reporters seem to dominate the Downing Street press conferences even when the focus is clearly on the latest scientific advice or public health messaging.
I guess some of this is inevitable when the only story in town is a medical science one and journalists with no hinterland of science are suddenly transferred from reporting Brexit to reporting on the R0. One good thing that could come out of this nightmare would be a better understanding of the way science works, including the fact that scientists regularly disagree and evidence grows by knocking down theories and improving on previous findings. But that will not happen if journalists used to looking for splits in Cabinet start looking to disagreements amongst scientists for a new ‘angle’. This approach doesn’t work on many levels. Right now, we all really need the best scientists to be testing each other’s evidence more robustly and rigorously than ever, not worrying that every comment they make will be snatched for the next news bulletin as further proof that something has gone wrong.
Which brings me to my final worry – that scientists will start to step back from the fray as the story gets more politicised. Last week, I had to spend time persuading four different scientists not to step back from the fray because of the political nature of the questions they are now facing and the way scientific differences were being spun to put them into certain camps. One expert who had agreed to a lab visit by a science journalist considered pulling out when the testing question became so heavily politicised. Another scientist working 12-hour days testing new treatments was door-stepped over two days by a Sunday newspaper – hardly the kind of public benefit envisaged when reporters were granted key worker status. Another, after reading countless articles about his membership of SAGE, wrote “We are not a secret cabal of ‘Official Government Advisors’ plotting policy. We are a bunch of university lecturers, who only left the picket line because we’re trying to help get the country through this, and who spend half our time trying to find the unmute button on Zoom.” Thankfully, my powers of persuasion are good, but I worry that there are others out there who have stepped back already. It’s hard to see how that will benefit anyone.
The science and health journalists have been there from day one in early January, managing to report what little we do understand while conveying clearly what we have still to learn. Many of my days now start with checking out great explainers by science reporters, including James Gallagher’s on the BBC website – last week’s offerings were on R0 and immunity after recovery. And there are bits of new media coming through with properly immersive reporting. Tom Chivers has been writing great stuff on UnHerd, and Freddie Sayers’ two long interviews with Neil Ferguson and Johan Giesecke for the same outlet stand out. In a lovely piece in Press Gazette in March, Shaun Lintern, award-winning health reporter on The Independent, talked about how the health reporters had suddenly become the most important journalists in the newsroom. That was not only nice to read, but reassuring in terms of the wider public and policy-makers getting access to great science. It feels to me like this has shifted and the science reporting is now serving the political. I hope it drifts back. We need the best of all journalism in this crisis – political and science.
One positive to come out of the MMR debacle of 20 years ago was that editors acknowledged mistakes and started to defer more to their science and health specialists. Indeed, MMR may be one of the reasons that the UK news media has not haemorrhaged specialist science journalists in the way we have seen in other countries. I hope we don’t forget that lesson at this crucial moment.
The instinct to hold ministers’ feet to the fire has been the making of many a journalist. It’s often the right one. But as ever, there is a balance to be struck. And when there is so much still to learn, I suggest the public are better served by an approach which acknowledges the unique and unprecedented challenge we all face in tackling this virus and the need to understand the complexity of an ever-changing situation. There will be plenty of time down the line to return to seeking scalps.