Reporting on the Pandemic When Experts are Wrong

It is still early to be performing a critical analysis of the handling and reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020. But that won’t stop others from doing so…so let’s take a minute to reflect on how journalists are doing, and whether there are lessons to be learned.

Lesson #1: most journalists are woefully unprepared to report on complex medical issues under crisis-induced deadlines. Economic realities on the ground mean fewer reporters overall, and fewer with the kind of specialized training needed when reporting on the most complicated topics, e.g. science/medicine, international policy, and economics, all of which are part of this complex story. That’s why we need more specialized journalism outlets like Stat to turn to for expert reporting.

Lesson #2: experts consulted by journalists were either intentionally or unintentionally misreporting the data, and the level of skepticism by journalists was insufficient. Taking the word of China’s authoritarian leadership, the World Health Organization, and our own medical experts and policy leaders has turned out to be, on some level, a mistake.

Lesson #3: political partisanship has clouded the reporting. The hyper-partisan climate in our country, and the partisan divide that separates news consumers into left/right echo-chambers, has made it extremely difficult to separate fact from opinion. The collage below was put together for partisan reasons by someone who was trying to deflect the current blame game about “who knew what and when did they know it.” It is easy to see how bias creeps into reporting when so much is at stake in an election year.

Collection of dubious news headlines

There are plenty of additional lessons to be learned, and there will be plenty of time to learn them once the crisis has been averted. But for now it would do us all well to have a bit more humility when confronting what we don’t know, and a bit more skepticism when “experts” declare their “truth” about this deadly pandemic.

UPDATE: This quote from Recode captures another dilemma facing journalists.

This core challenge for journalists won’t go away after the pandemic: There are always going to be threats that could eventually lead to disaster, but most of them don’t. If we holler every time we see one, we’ll be wrong and no one will listen to us. If we don’t holler when there’s a real one, we will have let down our audience.

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