Crises make for strange bedfellows. It took the COVID-19 pandemic to forge a bond between journalists and epidemiologists.
These two occupations have little in common. Journalist detest jargon and are admonished by editors for wordy prose. Epidemiologists publish in medical and scientific journals using the jargon and terminology of their profession.
They may present scientific results that describe how an illness
moves through a population, identify new risk factors for a disease, or
predict and forecast diseases and deaths. But these results can be
couched with caution because epidemiologists worry a great deal about
their assumptions, biases in the data or models, and any other threat to
the validity of their work.
Journalists, on the other hand, are promoted and prized for fast work, writing that’s conversational, stories that make definitive judgments and predictions that make sense to the average person.
Expecting these two groups to become kindred spirits seems a bridge too far. But it’s happening because of this pandemic. Here’s why:
Epidemiologists carefully study the causes of disease and what might
improve human health, so this can be slow work. A decimal point or
fraction of a percentage makes a big difference. It takes time to
collect good data in enough quantity to make sense of what’s going on.
Models are meticulously constructed and must be commensurate to the
strong data they’re built on. A great paper on a hot topic can boost a
But epidemiologists have been forced during the pandemic to provide
instant advice. They’ve been asked about things that haven’t been
studied, aren’t in medical journals or, if there is data, it’s not
easily and quickly accessible.
But the show must go on, so epidemiologists have made instant
pronouncements on masks, gloves, social distancing, pets, incubation
periods, lifespan of the virus, treatment, cures and so on.
It should be no surprise that even these careful scientists made mistakes on the fly.
Journalists know this will be the case. One documentary on journalism by the National Film Board of Canada is called History on the Run. That’s also the title of a book by newscaster Knowlton Nash. It’s “on the run” because all the facts or even the truth may be hard to catch.
News was called “the first, rough, draft of history” by Phil Graham
of the Washington Post. The second draft may contain fewer errors and a
more complete perspective.
But there may not be a second draft. The next day’s news may be on another topic and more interesting.
At least one other occupation knows there will be challenges and
problems producing good work. The military use the term “fog of war.”
Prussian Gen. Von Clausewitz, who died in 1831, wrote of “fog and
friction” – the things you can’t know before a battle, things that
change during the battle and things that will slow you down. Those might
include actual fog, smoke from muskets, the weather, topography and
You don’t know what you won’t know. You don’t hear politicians, governments or scientists admitting this.
Von Clausewitz’s other relevant quote is: “Everything in war is very
simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” That’s what we’re finding
in this pandemic.
Journalists and the military handle uncertainty well.
Epidemiologists, not so much. All three are looking over the landscape
and battlefield and explaining events and concepts in real time. This is
a prescription for error.
Take the discussion about whether pets can transmit COVID-19. One
epidemiologist is reported to have said “there’s no evidence that pets
can transmit the disease.”
That may be true, in many ways. Maybe a study looked for the virus in
the noses of a lot of household pets in a city and couldn’t detect any.
Or a study may not have found any instances of an infected pet
transmitting the disease to its owner. Or it may be that a study found
no differences in infection rates between pet owners and non-pet owners.
Or perhaps no one has studied or published anything on the topic.
But the “no evidence” remark would cause the average person to
believe it had been studied and pets could not transmit the disease.
It turns out that pets can transmit the disease, so now there’s evidence.
Imagine a corporal telling the commander on the field of battle that there’s no evidence that the enemy is behind the hill:
Commander: “Did you go look?”
Corporal: “No, sir, but there’s still no evidence.”
Commander: “Did you send anyone to look?”
Corporal: “No sir, but I assure you there’s no evidence.”
The corporal, now a private, is factually accurate but the observation is irrelevant.
The discussion would go the same way in a newsroom with the
assignment editor asking much the same questions and then sending out
another journalist to do the story. That story would contain the words,
“No one seems to know … it’s not immediately known …” or other fudging
But what does everybody who doesn’t know a particular fact know for sure? Don’t we all know that it’s best to be cautious?
Let’s go look over the hill, test the pets, find out what’s known and
so on. In the meantime, soldiers could shoulder arms just to be on the
safe side. Journalists can write that there are gaps in what we know and
advise news consumers to stay tuned for more information.
Why not assume that pets can be infectious but that hand washing,
cleaning and reasonable distancing may be good precautionary measures?
Unfortunately, the phrase “there is no evidence that …” has been used
more frequently than is helpful. Once may be too much without
additional necessary explanations.
Perhaps the most egregious example was the World Health Organization
(WHO) proclaiming in early January 2020 that “Preliminary investigations
conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of
human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)
identified in Wuhan, China.”
Even though there was no evidence at the time, that didn’t mean the enemy wasn’t behind the hill. We know what happened next.
These communication mistakes undermine the credibility of scientists at a time when trust is necessary to effectively combat the pandemic.
Public health professionals, like journalists, have a responsibility
to share what they know, based on the information they have. Mistakes
and errors may be made as we learn and study this virus. We’re humans
trying to learn about and solve a human disease.
Both epidemiologists and journalists have a duty to not incite panic
with overstated claims and need to take the time to explain cautiously
Journalists know the importance of the pandemic; epidemiologists feel the pressure.
We need more discussions about how epidemiologists arrived at their
conclusions and what the limitations are, along with clear directives
for sensible action going forward.
Partnering with journalists and media to disseminate these messages without falling back on couched claims and nebulous statements is a good step toward establishing trust and credibility.
by Derek Ng, Deborah Prabhu and Allan Bonner. Originally published by Troy Media.