BEWARE OF ARMCHAIR EPIDEMIOLOGISTS
Throughout history, fake experts have suddenly appeared during times of crisis. They emerge from obscurity, stand on their various soapboxes and proliferate misinformation. Such falsehoods create a climate of fear, which is fuelled by those eager to put in their two cents worth.
Periods of great uncertainty always provide a fertile breeding ground for the spread of mistruths. The current COVID outbreak is no exception and has thrust previously obscure individuals into the pandemic limelight. People claiming to be health experts have popped up everywhere as talking heads in the media.
In response, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement in February warning that humanity is not just fighting a viral pandemic but also an “infodemic”. Like the virus, the infodemic has proven to be highly contagious and has been transmitted by mainstream and social media.
Public nervousness and the desperate search for cures has made it impossible to completely immunise a gullible public against fabricated stories. In the words of the WHO boss, we are “battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response”.
We should not heed the barrage of half-baked COVID health advice from Twitter, Facebook or deranged politicians like former President Trump. Yet millions have listened to their quack remedies and pseudo-scientific explanations. While some of these cures seem legitimate, most are patently wrong.
The WHO’s mythbusters site pours cold water on a raft of dodgy health tips that allegedly prevent or cure COVID-19. These include eating garlic, drinking bleach, snorting cocaine, rinsing the nose with saline, gargling with salt water and spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body.
The Australian Government also has a mythbusting site and it debunks a number of COVID-19 myths including that hot temperatures kill the virus, 5G networks spread the virus, drinking water every 15 minutes prevents infection and hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment.
Around the world, mass media coverage of the pandemic has contributed significantly to the COVID-19 infodemic. The mainstream media’s penchant for sensationalism has resulted in inaccurate news dissemination including the reporting of unscientific cures and unverified medicines. As noted in The Harvard Gazette:
At many major news outlets, reporters and editors with no medical or public health training were reassigned to cover the unfolding pandemic and are scrambling to get up to speed with complex scientific terminology, methodologies, and research, and then identify, as well as vet, a roster of credible sources.
The media’s failure to correctly identify qualified and trustworthy sources of information about COVID is a case of history repeating itself. From major incidences like terrorist attacks to routine events such as interest rate hikes, the media’s modus operandi is to call upon supposed “authorities” to act as instant experts and explain what has happened and why.
But these so-called pundits are often no more than self-proclaimed gurus. Indeed, they typically know little more than the rest of us. Even so, put them in front of a camera, and these publicity seekers can’t resist asserting their opinions on subjects in which they have little or no formal training or expertise.
The Y2K computer bug is a classic example. While technology legend, Bill Gates, saw the millennium bug as a “minor inconvenience”, less qualified IT commentators promulgated doomsday scenarios and were aided in their deception by the media which spun compelling but inaccurate stories.
A naïve public bought into the outrageous predictions about planes falling from the sky and missiles self-launching. Nonetheless, the bug did not bite and the New Year passed with nothing more than the expected hangover. Those who foretold of a global computer apocalypse caused unnecessary panic but were never brought to account.
Nothing had changed by the time of the Fukushima power plant disaster in 2011. Yet again, the media wheeled out instant experts who hyperventilated over the very modest amounts of radioactive fallout. While fears about radiation contamination were clearly overblown, they made for dramatic headlines which trumpeted the dangers of nuclear energy.
A report released five years after the disaster by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found that not one person had died because of the meltdown. Referencing the UNSCEAR Report, a Forbes magazine article stated:
No one will die from Fukushima radiation, there will be no increased cancer rates, the food supply is not contaminated, the ocean nearby is not contaminated, most of the people can move back into their homes, and most of the other nuclear plants in Japan can start up just fine.
Almost three years to the day after Fukushima, the world was gripped by the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777. The aircraft vanished without a trace, bringing a gaggle of know-it-alls out of the woodwork. They went into overdrive speculating about what may have happened to the plane.
Many of their theories were not supported by a shred of solid evidence. Nonetheless, their views were given air time by media outlets. This helped networks maintain rolling coverage of the tragedy and filled the huge gap in reliable information about the plane’s fate.
Suggestions from armchair sleuths, aviation experts and conspiracy theorists were broadcast. Fringe theories flourished and ranged from the sinister (electronic warfare), to the far-fetched (remote island landing) to the insane (abducted by aliens).
Clearly, listening to near-experts is a fool’s errand which is why the media must do a better job of identifying opportunists who simply want 15 minutes of fame. Around the world, television, radio and print interviews have contributed to new-found notability for charlatans who were not properly vetted prior to being unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
The coronavirus has shown, once again, how easy it is for someone to claim to be a subject matter expert. And if the “expert” is deemed to be camera-ready, there is always the temptation by the media to forgo a credentials check. Even so, background checking should never be optional, even when working to a tight deadline.
Fact-checking the experience of an “expert” may seem like a tedious extra step to a journalist, a reporter or a broadcast producer – but it’s essential. The media is critical when politicians and CEOs – who also work to tight deadlines – get facts wrong. So, the same standards should apply equally to news outlets.
Please allow me to end with an observation. The media does a great job in holding others to account for their failings and shortcomings and is quick to throw stones. Despite that, the media reacts negatively to feedback about its own performance and is poor at self-examination and reflection.
“Journalists and media professionals automatically take up defensive positions when confronted with criticism,” notes Julie Reid, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Science at the University of South Africa.
In an article published in The Conversation, A/Professor Reid acknowledges that, in many countries, political and government interference in the editorial independence of news outlets is still prevalent. This causes journalists and media professionals to feel that they are under attack. This, in turn, gives rise to a siege mentality which is reflected in the news media’s reluctance to embrace genuine critique or evidence-based scrutiny of its performance. She writes:
The rantings of a crooked politician who dismisses the news media’s reportage as fake news and calls for draconian media regulations to conceal his own corruption is one thing. The critique and criticisms of media analysts, but more especially of ordinary citizens, whose only request is that the news media works better for them, is an entirely different matter. And ought to be respected.
I’m an ordinary citizen who merely seeks better accuracy in news reporting. Like all citizens, I have the right to hold the media’s feet to the fire over its reporting of the pandemic. On all continents, mainstream media outlets have aided and abetted charlatans in spreading bogus COVID information and this has circumnavigated the planet in seconds.
Media professionals seeking advice on best practice in responsible journalism during a health crisis would benefit from reading an article by Catriona Bonfiglioli. Ms Bonfiglioli is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. In a 2020 piece she wrote for The Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia she stated that when journalists report on the coronavirus, it is important that their words:
… help people understand best prevention tips, minimise stigmatisation of people with COVID-19, reject fake health news, and resist the allure of “sexy” controversies and contrarians hitching a ride on the news wave by contradicting public health advice or calling for extreme measures.
Responsible journalism IS possible during times of crisis.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer