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The problem of media misrepresentation

The pandemic has made it clear that the aims of the media and those of science are often very different

It has been interesting to be involved in the Covid-19 pandemic as a journalist and a doctor. Over the course of the last 18 months or so the playing pitch has changed. At the start of the pandemic, there was a striking sense of shared resolve and solidarity. People were largely united in their support of difficult measures to protect the vulnerable, safeguard our health system and sustain key workers. More recently, there has been a polarisation into two
camps: The ‘open up camp’ and the ‘not yet camp’. This divide has become especially acute in the UK, since the government there lifted Covid restrictions on 19 July. Writing in The Conversation recently, two Oxford academics argued that it is time for the media “to rise above pitting scientists against each other – dealing with the pandemic requires nuance”. Profs Trish Greenhalgh and Dominic Wilkinson say that with the battle lines drawn sharply, media interviewers have set up head-to-head encounters between the ‘open ups’ and the ‘not yets’. “We have been in the
ring for such debates on opposite sides and found that these formats add heat, but little light to public understanding.” They are not the only scientists to express disquiet at the media handling of the pandemic. In their recently published book Vaxxers, Prof Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green – who were among those who developed the Astra Zeneca vaccine at Oxford University – say that despite carefully preparing for press conferences they were often disappointed with the media portrayal of their message.

A completely false social media report that one of the first volunteers in the Oxford vaccine trail had died was an especially low moment for the scientists. An example of the important, but complicated, relationship between science and the media was the completely untrue claim made in a German newspaper in late January (2021) that the new vaccine was only eight per cent effective in older people. As a result, Germany’s vaccinepolicymaking body announced that it would not authorise the use of the vaccine in the over 65s. “Of course this isn’t just about my hurt feelings that
my work was misrepresented,” Green said. “It’s not even about the importance of trust in journalism. This kind of
information… will have cost lives. People who could have been vaccinated were not vaccinated, and some of those
people will have died.” Greenhalgh and Wilkinson put forward a possible solution to the media vs science soundbites. They say we need to recognise that this pandemic is a complex phenomenon unfolding in a complex system.
“Complex systems are non-linear. In other words, small things can have large effects (the Delta variant entered the
UK, perhaps in just one infected person, and became dominant within weeks).

And large things can have small effects (a huge, centralised test and trace system has proved inefficient and contributed little). Such dynamics make accurate prediction of the effect of interventions impossible. While
scientists can estimate and speculate, none of us know for sure what will unfold,” they write. In their view, complex systems must be handled in ways that embrace scientific and moral uncertainty.

Crucially there is a need for dialogue and deliberation to examine this highly complex problem from many different angles. “When we move beyond ‘us versus them’ we can come to better understand ourselves and be more likely to arrive at the best collective decisions.” They want media hosts to rise above the catechism of both-sides journalism, which demands a superficial bare-knuckle fight between a “pro” and an “anti” voice. “Instead, they should acknowledge common ground (we all want to protect our young; we all yearn to return to work and social activities) and help scientists, ethicists and others with different perspectives to work through the possibilities and trade-offs, to find common ground, to accept reasonable disagreement, to seek compromise,” they say. Taking the issue of giving children the Covid vaccine, there are arguments both for and against. Differences may be resolved partly by new data and partly by identifying sub-groups, such as high risk and low risk.

But Greenhalgh and Wilkinson argue the decision to vaccinate or not also requires moral deliberation on how
to weigh up a putative risk to the child against a putative benefit to another household member. It also requires deliberation on how much a vaccine campaign in children would divert supplies or policy attention away from the
increasingly difficult task of reaching every eligible adult that remains unvaccinated. These are important issues
that need to be teased out calmly. Ultimately, the rules, motivations and indicators of success in science are not the same as those obtaining in the media.

From my perspective, this is an important difference we should value. A media that cannot ask reasonable
questions is of no use to science

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