Infodemic and Health Disparities

This is the third of a multi-part series describing experiences, lessons, and reflections of the San Francisco public- media based KQED Science news team during a year of reporting on, and living through an unprecedented series of disasters.

Managing an ‘Infodemic’

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the public is also experiencing a massive infodemic. This term, first coined by the World Health Organization, refers to the bombarding of vast quantities of information, much of it untrue or scientifically unproven, spreading in parallel with the virus. The end result is that a news-hungry public may often find it difficult to distinguish between evidence-based information, and a broad array of misinformation. During the pandemic, the volume and speed of COVID-related information released by federal, state, and local government agencies, as well as by scientific and academic institutions, put stress on the media’s information-gathering and vetting processes.The mountain of incorrect and often harmful assertions proliferating on social media, where anyone can publish and claim to be an expert, added to this already daunting task.

What has often been called an infodemic forced KQED science reporters to take extra steps when vetting information and sources related to the pandemic. The reporters knew that publishing inaccurate claims could negatively affect the public’s health and safety. Adding to the stress of an already high-pressure situation, before filing their stories, reporters constantly had to check and recheck the validity of statements by public figures and politicians, as well as data and research from the scientific community.

When potentially life-and-death decisions are being made based upon reported information, the accuracy of that information becomes essential. Accuracy can often be sacrificed for the sake of speed, so lots of facts either don’t get reported with enough context or get lost in a stream of misinformation. During disasters, reporters walk a delicate line between deadlines and a desire to avoid spreading inaccuracies in their haste to report information. Journalists are constantly balancing when and how fast to publish, as well as how much they’re willing to say when a story or piece of information may not feel totally vetted, a frequent occurrence during the pandemic.

One of the first rules of journalism when you’re covering disasters is to be very careful with anything that you haven’t confirmed and not to rush information online. — KQED Science News team

During the height of the pandemic, information and directives coming from public health and government sources would change sometimes from hour to hour. The ever shifting nature of this information, and the limitations imposed by many agencies on access to public records, made it difficult for reporters to confirm even basic pieces of information they were disseminating. The pressure to rapidly push information out to the public limited the time needed to properly analyze and contextualize what was being released. As one reporter remarked: “We were in conflict with ourselves about information and how we understand information.”

One concerning trend to emerge from the pandemic indicated the lines of when to report research were becoming increasingly blurry, as the science community began to move out of its “comfort zone” with respect to the point at which it makes its findings public. Though the KQED Science News team normally does not report on preprints (studies posted prior to peer review), during the height of the pandemic, any research on the virus was considered critical, and as such many in the news media started to report on it. Likewise, there were some instances of pharmaceutical companies reporting positive trial results without releasing the data. The public was so hungry for good news that some outlets published these “findings” as well. This put reporters in a bind and looking for confirmation in places they normally wouldn’t have to.

I really appreciate the science community stepping up and being really willing to share context and perspective. I think there were some early Twitter groups of virologists that I followed. I got clued in quickly to papers that were making a big splash, but were suspicious. For example, there was a preprint paper that said something like the virus had been circulating since late last summer (2019). It was not well reviewed. I was able to say we don’t want to give this attention because the findings are really suspicious. We didn’t do anything with it, and didn’t have to correct any information. It can be really overwhelming to try to have eyes on all of the science press, all the literature, so much on Twitter. I would rather us move a little bit slower and have more context and scientific opinions before we say something that moves really quickly and may not have review. –KQED Science News staff

A number of reporters commented that the type of disinformation promulgated during the pandemic was different than in other disasters, such as the California wildfires.

During a big fire, if Cal Fire says the fires are 50% contained, reporters can’t really fact check that, and also, they don’t have a good reason to lie. If a company says their vaccines look really, really promising, they’re interested in that message getting out to investors, they may have a good reason to lie to you. This is just like a multifaceted disaster because it’s partially partisan. There’s misinformation out there with the motivation behind it.– KQED Science News staff

The experience of reporting the pandemic and wildfires has shed light on how scientific research and review get translated into consumable news. The hope is that this may infuse some healthy skepticism into the newsroom to promote more scrupulous vetting of research studies or claims.

Equity and Health Disparities

What the pandemic and wildfires reinforced for KQED Science reporters was that health is a complex topic to cover, and that addressing public health and equity issues is fundamental to properly covering these kinds of disasters. As both the pandemic and wildfires continued into the fall of 2020, it became increasingly evident that communities of color were being disproportionately impacted.

During the first stages of disaster reporting, reporters acknowledged that there can be a reflexive reaching out to people already in their own communities or networks. Such sources are generally part of, and often represent, the perspectives from a reporter’s own socioeconomic status. Only later in disaster coverage may more diverse perspectives come out.

For many KQED Science reporters, covering the twin disasters blurred the line between reporting on science and reporting on public health and policy. Due in part to capacity issues, KQED Science reporters didn’t generally cover health policy issues, but the events of 2020 began to change that.

Climate change has a disproportionate impact on certain populations. I think we have to surface that. Health is a massive area and public health is fundamental, as we’ve discovered during this pandemic. We’ve been covering stories about medicine, therapeutics and antibodies as [they] relate to the coronavirus pandemic. We’re not really covering race and equity and disparities during disasters; we’re still just scratching the surface. — KQED Science News staff

As the disasters progressed, KQED Science reporters began reaching out to Bay Area communities generally less represented in news coverage, in order to understand the many ways they were being impacted. Follow-up stories included interviews with individuals from marginalized groups, documenting the circumstances that led to hospitalizations and displacement, lack of access to proper diagnosis and treatment, and the loss of jobs.

I think science should cover policy, and because policy brings up broader societal questions, they’re going to be necessarily messier. I think because climate affects health, it would be a mistake not to follow that to the conclusion of what happens when those things are affected. — KQED Science News staff

As more data came out highlighting the stark health disparities in communities impacted by the pandemic and wildfires, reporters reflected on a need for more diversity among the news staff. As one reporter commented:

When there are less diverse newsrooms, there is a tendency for diverse voices to take a back seat.”

Covering equity-related issues during disasters raises questions about the implications of coverage for wider political conversations about disaster-related issues, such as aid, environmental protection, global climate change, and the costs of human development in areas prone to natural disasters. Reporters also struggle with defining their responsibility and the kinds of stories they should focus on post-disaster.

In future disaster coverage, especially on issues dealing with climate, reporters will need to redefine how they approach stories about health disparities. This will require a greater appreciation for building trust within vulnerable communities to ensure that the reporting and research process is participatory and genuine, which can help people feel more comfortable when they are asked to tell their stories.

Our final article will explore how recent disaster reporting has changed reporters’ relationships with the public and is reshaping the media’s coverage of disasters.

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