The media has come under scrutiny for the way they have handled Covid-19, for good and sometimes unfair reasons. It is absolutely true that dealing with a fast-moving pandemic at a time when science is being done at a record pace and under an unrelenting spotlight is a really tough job. But mistakes made under duress are mistakes, and the only way we get better at this job is to learn from it.
A recurring theme in the media’s missteps about the pandemic is the inability to think through and convey uncertainty to readers. And a glaring example of how much journalists and outlets have let the public down is the coverage of the so-called lab leak theory of Covid-19’s origins.
This recently became relevant again when Vanity Fair published a pretty stunning piece of reporting by Katherine Eban on the long and ugly battle between scientists and officials over the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
It’s worth remembering how the press got the first reports of the lab leak theory when it first started trickling down in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, it was generally agreed that China was likely hiding information about the origins of the pandemic, just as it had originally downplayed the virus itself.
At the same time, there was a lot of nonsense going around, such as claims that Covid-19 was closely related to HIV (it’s not) or whether it was designed by Bill Gates (also a no). When Republican Senator Tom Cotton speculated that Covid could have escaped from the laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), many scientists condemned that as the same conspiratorial nonsense, and many journalists repeated them.
So do I – I published an article on February 6, 2020 warning that the coronavirus could become a major problem. Overall, I’m proud of it, but less so in the part where I referred to the “conspiracy theory” that the virus came from a lab in Wuhan.
But the origin of the lab wasn’t a conspiracy theory — it was a credible scientific hypothesis, at a time when we knew very little, about how Covid-19 could have started. The WIV was investigating SARS-like coronaviruses, and we later found out that they were shortly before the pandemic started. taken offline a huge database of viruses they had studied.
As was known at the time, the Chinese government had history of lying and covering up disease outbreaksincluding the original SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which would always make it very difficult to get to the bottom of a situation like this.
Privately, Eban discovered that a few scientists wrote to each other that there may be a laboratory origin for Covid-19. But publicly they said otherwise, closing the door on the lab’s origin theory.
It’s not that they obscured obvious evidence of lab origin. Instead, there seemed to be an urge to end the conversation prematurely—perhaps out of a sense that the audience couldn’t be trusted to deal with uncertainty.
Why we need to get better at living with uncertainty
This is not just a matter of media or scientific criticism – it is a major problem for our faltering efforts to prepare for the next pandemic.
The fact is, we somehow don’t have enough evidence to definitively prove whether Covid-19 originated in a lab or in the wild. And that’s okay. We need to feel comfortable communicating that uncertainty.
The origin of Covid is far from the only story during the pandemic where attempts were made to put forward a “‘united front'” or a semblance of scientists all agreed, when in fact the science is uncertain and the scientists disagreed.
The attitudes missing here — tolerance for uncertainty, a willingness to withhold reassuring but incomplete answers, and courage to admit past mistakes — are attitudes we must adopt to do better in the next pandemic.
But the uncertainty challenge also goes the other way. way too often, communicators seemed a bit too timid draw preliminary conclusions based on the available evidence, sometimes waiting for the final word from a very conservative and sclerotic CDC before clicking “publish”.
In February 2021, people wanted to know if vaccines reduced the chances of passing Covid on to another person. There was some preliminary evidence that they did. But because the evidence wasn’t certain, and because they didn’t want vaccinated people to give up all caution, many public health educators were reluctant to comment on the subject.
I wrote an article about the growing evidence that vaccines reduced transmission, a theory that turned out to be correct, although it took months for the CDC to come to the same conclusion.
Efforts to create a “united front” are meant to reduce misinformation and confusion, but sometimes they cause it while everyone else is waiting to see what everyone is saying. I have come to believe that it is better to directly and publicly explain what you believe and why, while acknowledging the disagreement where relevant.
Reviving trust in the media
From the start of the pandemic, health officials have sometimes made questionable statements, often reinforced by the media. First, some officials said we should be more concerned about the flu. Then we were told not to buy masks. The reversals on those and other questions may have contributed to declining confidence in our public health institution and the media†
Instead of trying to present a united front, scientists should say that there is disagreement, and explain what exactly the disagreement is about. And instead of trying to give readers “the answer” to big questions like the origins of Covid, journalists should feel comfortable saying we’re not sure, share what evidence we have, and be okay if they don’t know.
Experts should also feel more comfortable disagreeing with other experts in public when they disagree in private. A painful lesson has been that our public health officials are human too, and a recurring theme in Eban’s piece is that they often had vast differences between what they believed in private and what they said in public.
Based on the discourse on the laboratory leak theory, it is not clear that we have learned the above lessons. We need to adapt – quickly – if we want to do better in the next pandemic.
A version of this story was originally published in the Future perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!