Study: Covid-19 reporting on scientific studies ‘tempered’ results instead of exaggerating them

Even though media outlets relied on journalists without science backgrounds during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, their stories tended to temper claims rather than exaggerate the conclusions of studies on masking, spread and who was getting sick and why.

A recent study by two University of Michigan School of Information faculty members found that journalists were often unfairly blamed for rushing to publish the latest news about Covid-19 research when, in fact, they brought a natural skepticism to the reporting.

“Our findings suggest that journalists are actually pretty careful when reporting science,” researcher Jiaxin Pei said in a statement. “Journalists have a hard job. It’s nice to see that they really are trying to contextualize and temper scientific conclusions within the broader space.”

(Photo courtesy of Terence Faircloth via Flickr)

Lisa Palmer, a longtime environmental and science journalist, said  journalists reporting on the pandemic did numerous things well: they explained the process of science, efficiently covered timely updates to the rapidly developing pathogen, and the providing of analysis. 

When teaching her aspiring scientific journalists, Palmer, currently the National Geographic Research Professor of Science Communication at The George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said tells her students to put on their “BS-blinders.” By doing that, they avoid falling into the assumptions that just because a study says something is statistically significant, that doesn’t mean it is the seal of approval. Likewise, Palmer teaches that human minds are wired to see the truth in visual representations, and being critical of that is crucial as a scientific journalist. 

Determining significance is crucial, said Mira Sotirovic, an associate professor on propaganda and the Director of Graduate Studies for the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois.

“First, before a journalist reports on a study, he/she should establish its newsworthiness. For example, was [the] study published in a peer-reviewed journal, what are the findings and how strong they are (are they significant?),” Sotirovic said. 

Palmer said journalists should not be taken in by graphics used to promote scientific research.  “What is it actually showing?” 

Palmer encourages the awareness of data’s convincing nature, fact or fiction, when it is displayed visually, is dangerous to readers. In response, she encourages her writers to be skeptical, to make sure what they’re seeing on paper and writing about is the same thing. 

Likewise, Sotirovic said that readers should ask the same basic questions that journalists should ask about every scientific study; who paid for the study, how was the study, how were concepts measured, what are the limitations of the study? 

Any journalist covering any form of science must overcome the difficulties of gathering and containing all the nuances of a graph to a less data-fluent audience, a real struggle Palmer said. To pivot complex scientific knowledge into comprehendible reading, Palmer said  the key is to map out the hypothesis of the study and identify what the scientist was trying to accomplish in the study. Then, journalists must communicate in a digestible way to the audience while assuring to not overstate anything not a part of the study, Palmer says. 

As far as her own approach to making scientific reports understandable for readers, Palmer said she focused on identifying why the story is important and making the data comprehendible. 

While admitting that she thinks journalists are generally careful when reporting science, Palmer said no study can be the “perfect end all be all.” Readers can always find an echo chamber to confirm their bias when it comes to scientific journalism, so outlet diversification is crucial to truth-seeking, Palmer says. 

“Science reporting is in a growth stage,” Palmer said. 

Although scientists and journalists are usually after the same thing, the truth, they are inherently set up to oppose each other in a presumable pretensions’ way, said Jenny Wohlfarth, a journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati. 

Wohlfarth said she encourages aspiring journalists to go into health, environmental, and/or scientific reporting, as they are fields that are only going to get “more important.”

Owen Racer is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist. He is on Twitter @owenrracer.

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