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Covering Science in Mainstream Media: The Needs and Dangers


Saam Hasan


A global health crisis is usually a time when the whole world is looking to scientists, anxiously waiting on their every move. After all, the onus is on the scientific community to discover or invent a way to steer humanity away from said crisis. As such, the media increases the spotlight on scientists in a proportional manner. Every study or research focusing on the crisis gets covered.

Unfortunately, this can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On one side, there is an obvious need to disseminate new information to the public; but on the other, this overzealousness towards getting every single new finding to the people can lead to less stringent validity checks being applied before choosing to cover something.

Ever since the current Covid-19 pandemic began, all of us have seen an almost endless stream of reports every day, describing some new scientific study or discovery. Sometimes it’s about how the virus is changing, sometimes it’s about the origin of the virus, and other times it concerns some new successful treatment, such as an existing drug or maybe even a potential vaccine.

Unfortunately, if you do read these reports properly and then follow through on them, a number of issues will arise. Some of them will appear to be contradictory, while others don’t really lead to anything significant as claimed — for example, in case of supposedly successful drugs.

This does not mean in any way that the studies are fake or meaningless; however, everyone needs to understand how scientific research is conducted, and how it should be interpreted by those outside the scientific community. 

So, how does this work? Basically, you have one or a group of scientists conducting some research somewhere in the world, after which they publish their findings in some journal. The important thing to note here is that just because one group of researchers reports a certain discovery, it doesn’t mean that it gets accepted as absolute fact. Normally, you will have multiple other groups follow up on that with similar work, and if everyone appears to get the same results, then a consensus is reached that these findings are indeed valid.

Under normal circumstances, only when a certain finding has been confirmed by multiple studies does it make it to the media. Hence, generally speaking, you are only likely to find out about new discoveries after they have been proven as fact — to a certain degree, at least. However, because of the current situation and how desperate everyone is for new information, almost every other study is making its way to the media before it can be properly validated. 

As a result, you hear about these new findings every day, despite the fact that a lot of the evidence they report has not been established yet as absolutely true, and may even be anecdotal. Worse still, some of these studies that have been reported in the media have not even been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Once more, this is not to say these findings cannot lead to something big that eventually saves us, but we simply do not know that yet.

This goes beyond just research articles and reports. In some cases, the media has been prone to reporting even unsubstantiated claims. The most glaring example of this was a suggestion from some time back that ingestion of ethanol would protect individuals from the coronavirus — a claim that was contradictory to almost all official instructions and reports.

During a health crisis, we are more reliant than ever on the media for accurate, valid information. Unfortunately, because of how easy it is for information to spread these days, filtration of scientific facts has proven to be a tricky aspect for journalists and news outlets. However, it is an absolutely vital service during such times, making it imperative for the media to be more vigilant than ever in this regard.

 


Whether it’s pop culture, fiction, or politics, writing is Saam’s ultimate passion and reprieve. 

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