The media and the pandemic

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser on COVID-19, joined two leading science journalists and Brandeis journalism professor Neil Swidey for a conversation on science journalism and the pandemic on March 3.

The event was sponsored by the Brandeis Journalism Program and the Office of the President of Brandeis University.

The panelists discussed the challenging environment the press have confronted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the media’s success combating misinformation.

Fauci has advised seven presidents on domestic and global health issues. In addition to advising the Biden administration, he directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

He was joined by Atul Gawande, a staff writer for The New Yorker and a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston; and Elisabeth Rosenthal, editor-in-chief of Kaiser Health News and opinion writer for the New York Times.

Swidey joined Brandeis last year as director of the journalism program and has since set about reimagining it to focus on convening smart people tackling the problems facing news media. 

"I can think of no better collection of talent and brainpower to kick off this effort than the panel we have convened for you today," Swidey told a Zoom audience of more than 3,000.

The panel discussed a range of topics, including:

Reopening states and the role of the press

As some states begin to fully reopen against scientific guidance, Fauci said it was important for the press to strongly communicate that relaxing mitigation measures is ill-advised.

"The baseline that we are at now, between 60,000 and 70,000 cases per day, is unacceptably high for any significant pulling back on mitigation, and I think we need to state that," Fauci said. "You have a tendency where you don't want to contradict someone in such a position as a governor, but the fact is, that [pulling back mitigation] is ill-advised."

Social Media

Since the emergence of the internet, local newspapers have been reducing staff and closing altogether, forming news deserts — places lacking professional local journalism — across the country, Rosenthal said. Social media has filled the void, and it is full of misinformation. 

"The challenge of this is thinking of the function of journalism differently," Rosenthal said. "If you want to counteract misinformation, you've got to go where misinformation is coming from."

Separating science from pseudoscience

Good science journalism has saved lives over the past year, but it has also failed to do enough to dispel pseudoscience, Gawande said. Science journalists could go beyond fact-checking and do more to explain the difference between pseudoscience and reputable science, he said.

"I think it's possible to say, ‘look — this is how you know you're getting snookered’ and have a debate about that as part of the discussion," Gawande said.

Fauci said the false equivalencies that come with people not believing scientists and public health officials has been a major problem.  

"There's no judge or editorialization, there's no shame in being wrong, it becomes almost a circus, it becomes very, very difficult," Fauci said.

Assessing the press

Despite the challenges, Fauci said he felt the press has largely done a good job reporting on the pandemic.

"They've shown something over the last couple of weeks that gives them a good bit of credibility — they are not hesitant to be critical, or put the feet to the fire, even of the current administration when they think something is not being done as well as they feel it should be," Fauci said. "Obviously, the relationship is different because we're not spouting 2,000 untruths a day, but I think for the most part it has been quite good."

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, Science and Technology

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