‘I’m ridiculously positive about the media’s coverage of COVID-19’

Scientific reporting has come a long way since the days of 'frankenfoods' and vaccine scare stories, says Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Centre. 

February 2nd 2021

Interview by Tom Ireland 

The Science Media Centre (SMC) was formed in 2002 after a Select Committee report found confidence and public trust in science were being eroded by sensationalised and inaccurate press coverage. The centre helps journalists access leading experts and encourages scientists to engage with the media, and in 2020 had its busiest ever year, organising hundreds of briefings and round-ups of expert opinion on COVID-19.

Its director, Fiona Fox, talks to The Biologist about how the press have handled the extraordinary deluge of scientific information and public health messages produced during the pandemic. 

Hi Fiona. You are writing a book in which each chapter tackles a big, controversial scientific issue that was covered badly by the media. If the COVID-19 pandemic also becomes a chapter, how does the media coverage compare to those other big topics in the past?

It can be hard to sum up how ‘the media’ has performed because each newspaper and media outlet does things differently. But when you pose the question like that, suddenly I do feel quite strongly that this would be a good news chapter, when many of the other chapters are not happy stories. Obviously the coverage of MMR and GMOs were partly why the SMC was set up; there was a lot of poor coverage and that has had consequences. The animal research story turned out well in the end, thanks to the work of organisations like the RSB, but that was a miserable story at the beginning. With COVID, there isn't any mainstream journalism out there scaring the public needlessly and the media are generally avoiding mavericks. They are using some of the best scientists in the country, many of whom are now household names.

When the Great Barrington Declaration emerged, we worried that the media would love the row so much that they would emphasise this view of a small number of people. I don't think they did. These were good scientists, so it was right for the media to report on it. But journalists were also conscious of making sure that it didn't look like that view was mainstream.

I’ve heard nice accounts from science journalists about suddenly being the most important person in the newsroom. Some have gone from writing maybe one major article a week to writing half the newspaper. That suggests the relative weight of the science and health correspondents’ view has changed a bit, and I think if editors had deferred more to them in the past there would have been less sensational coverage. Whether that's some kind of concerted collective agreement that they'll do better on this, or whether they just sense how important this is, I don’t know.

You’ve not been so positive about how political reporters cover the pandemic.

I’ve been critical of the ‘gotcha’ journalism from the political reporters, especially on the numbers of tests and vaccines. It's this game where they make the Government give us a number, and then if they don't deliver on that number that’s the story. There were so many interesting challenges with testing – which tests work best, how quickly you need to get results – but at every Downing Street press conference you’d get the same questions: 'why haven’t you reached this number yet?', 'you said you would, how can we trust you?' I just scream at the TV at that point. But overall, I'm ridiculously positive about the media’s coverage of COVID-19.

The other side of the coin is how scientists have been doing. You’ve mentioned the many scientists who have given up lots of their time to speak to media – but I’ve also seen you criticise scientists for ‘straying outside their lane’.

Overall it is a massive tick. A lot of people who haven't done a lot of media before, including members of SAGE, have really thrown themselves into it. The issue you raise is one where I suppose the appetite for access to scientists is so huge and interviewers will often ask questions which don't fall into their lane. They agree to do an interview on vaccines and the next thing they're being asked if Boris should cancel Christmas. They have to be very clear in saying ‘I’m not going to answer that, I’m an epidemiologist’.

There are also some very difficult questions, especially around the genetics and immunology of the virus where it really helps to have solid expertise to answer. And we have seen space scientists dabbling in modelling and behavioural scientists answering technical questions on airborne particles.

My hero on this is the statistician Professor David Spiegelhalter who is now famous for resisting Nick Robinson's attempts on the Today programme to drag him into commenting on issues outside his expertise. What’s even better is that I’m sure Nick and the audience trust David all the more for saying ‘I don’t know’. 

A feature of this pandemic has been the extraordinary amount of data and studies put out very quickly. Much of this has been disseminated on pre-print servers, or sometimes even as raw data, without peer-review. What are your views on how those kind of sources should be shared and reported?

This has been one of the most challenging things for us. Before COVID, my colleague Tom Sheldon spent about a year working on this with journal and university press officers. Press officers are important as they often determine when new scientific findings get put into the public domain and how. We published a set of guidelines saying that we love preprint, but urging press officers not to publicise them. The system where science is peer-reviewed and then published under embargo to allow journalists to properly read it is the best way to get science to the public.

Then COVID came, and all of that fell apart. All of these preprints were coming through, and it seemed wrong to refuse to engage with all this data that was desperately needed. One time we discussed a terrifying preprint we saw just before we left the office, and I remember saying ‘well, hopefully the journalists won't pick up on it,’ and of course by the time I was home a journalist had found it.

In the end we suspended our guidance, but urged press officers to discourage scientists from publicising preprints if they were very provisional, very small, or if they were done by scientists who've never done modelling before, which was starting to happen. There was also a learning curve for scientists who put preliminary numbers up, simply hoping for their colleagues and peers to work through them, and the next thing the world's media was on them. It really mattered in the early days because there were lots of predictions about case numbers.

Sometimes we do ask people to hold on for journal publication. The Lancet or the BMJ can fast-track it, and we can do a press release, in around 10 days. Then that will be the reliable finding that everybody discusses and Government will look at, at the same time.

The other big question is, what does this look like post COVID? When we're going back to doing studies on E-cigarettes, statins, antidepressants, I think our previous advice stands. Why rush these findings out?

fiona fox interview clippingsScience correspondents have become 'the most important people in the newsroom' due to the scale and complexity of the COVID-19 crisis, says Fox. 

The SMC has made a strategic decision to focus on improving news coverage in a traditional sense, i.e. TV, radio and newspapers. But many age groups get most of their news from social media – isn’t scientific misinformation on these platforms the bigger problem now?

Not everyone agrees with our narrow focus on news and other science media centres around the world do things differently. But we're a small team and I think we should put resources where we can make a difference. The news media is not disappearing. In fact, the opposite is the case – the move from print to online means newspapers have constant editions, live updates and unlimited word counts. Correcting misinformation found on social media is a very different skill and is something other organisations like Full Fact have emerged to tackle, and some of the medical charities are doing it well too.

Plus, I'm absolutely adamant that most stuff that makes its way onto social media comes from traditional news anyway. When my son tells me he's seen on Twitter that Donald Trump has done this or that, it'll usually be based on a New York Times story

Early reporting on COVID caused a big flood of people back from social media to traditional sources – journalists have been telling me about their explainer pieces getting phenomenal numbers, millions and millions of hits.

Vaccines have a bad history in terms of press coverage and misinformation. What are the challenges surrounding the communication of the enormous COVID-19 vaccination programme – and how do you think it's going so far?

When we started in 2002, The Daily Mail was an anti-MMR newspaper, Private Eye was known as being an anti-MMR magazine. Rod Liddle was editor of the Today programme and had reportedly told all the editorial staff he believed MMR causes autism.

We are now in a different world. We don't have newspapers that are anti-vax, we actually have newspapers that are anti anti-vax. So that's a good starting point. Again, a lot of very good scientists are making themselves available to deal with journalists’ questions, and journalists are putting good questions to them on behalf of the public. When someone drops dead three hours after getting their vaccine – which will happen when you’re vaccinating millions of 80 and 90 year olds – and a journalist decides to make a story of that, I have a list of people who will drop everything to comment.

But vaccine comms cannot only be about telling everyone that vaccines are safe. There has to be full openness and communication that is not just one-way. For example the MHRA and JCVI are doing amazing work. But they don't allow their experts to speak freely to journalists or simply answer their questions, it’s all very tightly managed by Department of Health and No.10 communications teams. As a result they were often not answering questions about the regulatory process when journalists desperately needed to understand what was happening with the approval of different vaccines.

One of the criticisms in the past of the SMC is that it is effectively putting a positive spin on science, ensuring people have a particular view of work that some people believe is harmful. Are you particularly sensitive to that criticism with these vaccines?

We don’t put a positive spin on anything, we don't have a position on anything. What we do is facilitate scientists to speak out on these issues. If a scientist from a respected institution who has published in peer reviewed journals wants to comment, then they can send us the quotes they want and we will send them out. I think it's incredibly dangerous for the SMC to start deciding which quotes or which scientists we favour.

However, one of the biggest reasons for the controversies over MMR and GM was that the scare stories were originating from scientists. So in those cases – and it still happening with COVID where scientists have views outside the mainstream – we let journalists know where the weight of scientific opinion lies. So I don't think we are particularly sensitive. We are convinced that the way to win public support is not to gloss over problems. When you hear people at our briefings talking about the unknowns, and the challenges, and the potential risks, you trust them even more.

The SMC was set up for a variety of reasons, but one was to counter a ‘crisis of confidence’ in society’s views of science and a collapse in respect for authority and expertise. Do you think the scientific effort in response to COVID-19 has gone some way to restoring that confidence and respect in expert views and research?

I’m never really sure whether I believe reports that the public are losing trust in science. But it’s hard to see how science will emerge from this anything but enhanced, whether that be the medical researchers finding treatments and vaccines, or the virologists and immunologists helping us to better understand the virus quickly.

The public has also learned about the limitations of science and that scientists often disagree – that there is no such thing as ‘the science’. This has been communicated so openly I think it means public trust in science is even more solid and not something that will disappear even if there are problems down the line with vaccination.

All of the SMC's expert comment and scientific briefings on COVID-19 can be found here

Fiona Fox OBE Hon FRSB is the director of the Science Media Centre.