By early August, dreams of hot vax summer had faded as the delta variant drove a surge in US covid cases. Just when many thought it couldn’t get worse, outlets reported a new strain they called “delta plus.” That name turned out to be misleading—delta hadn’t become extra threatening, and variants of the virus will naturally evolve. But never mind: news spread anyway, and so did the memes and panicked social media posts.
Overeager “mutant porn” stories are just a small subset of covid-19 news coverage, but they represent a larger problem I’ve wrestled with throughout my own work covering the pandemic: good covid-19 reporting is hard to do. As a reader of news, I’ve also been on the other side like everyone else: muddied or misleading news coverage can cause chaos and confusion when the best information is shifting regularly.
Navigating the covid-19 news cycle is exhausting—even impossible—without some understanding of how the news gets made. Here’s what I try to remind myself of when I go looking for answers.
Beware the “scariant”-industrial complex
“Double mutant,” “doomsday variant,” and even “the devil”—these are just a few of the terms that have been thrown around to describe emerging covid-19 variants. But experts who study the virus say premature media attention on every new variant can distract from the most important messages, like the effectiveness of vaccines.
Gigi Kwik Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says that when she sees news stories about scary-sounding variants like “delta plus,” she tries to push back on the implication that we’re dealing with a whole new beast.
“The variants are not magic,” she says. “The same things that we were doing to mitigate the legacy version are the things that we’re doing for alpha, beta, gamma, delta.”
It’s true that delta’s increased transmissibility has forced many jurisdictions to reinstate masking and distancing.
But if you see a headline like “How to tell if you have the delta variant,” you need to know that it’s ultimately an unhelpful way to think about things. In the US, at least, genetic sequencing is mainly used for broad surveillance—not on a case-by-case basis. That means most people who catch covid won’t ever know which variant they got, Kwik Gronvall says. And either way, the variants are all treated the same by doctors.
She says that sometimes, news outlets that write about variants are “calling out that the theater is on fire” but neglect to “inform people where the exits of a theater are and how to get there.”
Why? One reason is that “scariant” stories drive clicks, and many outlets rely on digital ads, which generate money on the basis of traffic.
“I always tell people, if this pandemic had happened 10 years ago we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” she says. “These variants would come out in a paper sometime 10 years in the future and nobody would be paying attention to it. We would stay focused on ‘The vaccines work—let’s get vaccinated.’”
Information changes, and that’s okay
The scientific discovery process doesn’t move at the same pace as the rapid-fire, constantly churning news cycle. It also can’t keep up with people’s questions about how to survive the pandemic. Readers wonder: Should I wipe down my groceries? What’s the risk of taking the subway? Could I get long covid even if I’m vaccinated? Questions like this don’t always have easy or good answers, and experts I spoke to say communicating the unknowns to the public has been a challenge.
But because this is a novel disease, scientists and public health authorities are learning in real time—and more than a year and a half in, knowledge around key topics like immunity and long covid is still evolving. Scientists are often looking for answers at the same time the public is, but that’s not always clear to ordinary people, who may expect immediate and authoritative information.
“One of the things [public health authorities] weren’t necessarily doing that we need to see moving forward is actually communicating about the uncertainty,” says Renée DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
This lack of clarity—and sometimes the conflict—in public health messages can filter down to the press and create a vacuum where misleading or unverified information can fester and spread, DiResta says.
“That void can be filled by anyone with an opinion,” she adds.
All those conflicting messages, combined with the reality of slow scientific timelines, can exacerbate distrust. Instead of seeing changes in official guidance as signs that health authorities are responding to new data responsibly, it‘s easy for the public to believe that those authorities and the media had it wrong again—for example, when the CDC changed its mask guidelines. Politically motivated actors exploit that distrust. Sloppy headlines and misleading tweets by reputable news outlets, or journalists’ predictions that age poorly, can be repurposed into ”gotcha” memes that hyperpartisan influencers use to continue chipping away at trust in the media.
“Entities like Newsmax will take any opportunity to find a misreported or changed fact from a CNN broadcast,” DiResta says.
Public health officials (and the reporters covering what officials say and do) need a better system of communicating what we don’t yet know and explaining that guidance could change on the basis of new information. DiResta has argued for a Wikipedia-like approach to public health, where the evolution of scientific knowledge and debate is public and transparent, and a wide range of experts can contribute what they know. “It is never going to go back to the old way, where they make some determination in some back room and present a unified consensus to a trusting public,” she says. “That model is over.”
We already see that kind of scientific back-and-forth play out on social media between researchers, public health experts, and doctors. Erika Check Hayden, a science journalist and director of the science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that journalists need to remember to do their due diligence with this increased access to scientific deliberation.
“It can be informative, from a journalist’s perspective, if you understand [how experts] are working out what is going on,” she says. “What’s unhelpful is if you latch on to that at any given moment and portray it as some sort of conclusion.”
That’s good advice for the average reader, too.
Focus on what’s most useful
So how can you find trustworthy news that feels relevant to your life? One option is to keep an eye out for sources, especially local ones, that don’t exclusively focus on blow-by-blow coverage. Reporting that contextualizes the daily numbers you see is likely more helpful than an endless series of stories that simply rattle off the top-line data.
South Side Weekly—a nonprofit newspaper based in Chicago—offers a model for something different. The Weekly covers the South Side of Chicago, a majority nonwhite area. The largely volunteer newspaper produced the ChiVaxBot, an automated Twitter account that shares two maps side by side each day: covid-19 vaccination rates by zip code and covid-19 death rates by zip code. Instead of showing a snapshot of the data on one day, the daily updates demonstrated a pattern over time. Because of this consistent, slow tracking, the bot sounded the alarm on vaccine disparities: Black and Latino areas showed high deaths but low rates of vaccinations, a situation that continues to this day.
The data was also carefully put into context. Charmaine Runes, one of the creators of the bot, wrote multiple explainers sharing data sources, key findings, and context, like citywide efforts focused on equity.
“The city publishes a lot of data, but it’s not always in ways that are useful to people,” Runes says. “It really became the media’s responsibility to do some of that interpretive work and to tell people, ‘Hey, this is what you need to pay attention to.’”
The Weekly didn’t look to other outlets for signals on what staff should be covering. Instead, stories reflect the concerns of the people the paper hopes to serve—and they dig below the surface, according to editor in chief Jacqueline Serrato.
“One thing I think media in general lacks is that they tend to leave out historical context. They tend to leave out a class analysis or an analysis of power dynamics,” she says. “They’ll give you the hard facts, but rarely do they say how these facts are going to play into your everyday lives.”
Check Hayden says that more nuanced, slower approaches to news can often serve people better, especially given the pace of trustworthy science.
“If we as journalists spent less time on this day-to-day, blow-by-blow, and more time developing these complex and nuanced stories, we will be doing a much greater public service,” she says.
Slowing down may sound counterintuitive, whether you’re a doomscroller desperate for guidance or a journalist looking for the next headline. The pandemic changes quickly—cases can spike within days—and the latest information always seems urgent and important. But I’ve noticed a theme throughout my work over the past year: slower can be better. People I’ve spoken to for my covid-19 coverage over many months often describe the networks, systems, and relationships that need to be in place for successful emergency responses, whether they’re earning trust in vaccines, supporting access to health care in underserved communities, or getting things like food and rent aid to everyone who needs it.
Ali Khan, a health-care worker in Chicago who I spoke with in February, described the building of those systems as “slow work.” It might be just the kind of persistent, thoughtful approach that readers and journalists can learn from, in a pandemic that isn’t ending anytime soon.
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
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