The Brandeis Journalism Program and Office of the President sponsored “Science in a Pandemic: A Brandeis Journalism Forum" to discuss the role journalism has had on the public’s understanding of the pandemic and overall view of public health institutions. The virtual event, which took place on March 3, was a part of “Science Journalism, the Pandemic, and Disinformation,” a new course offered by the Journalism Program.

The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the impact of journalism and social media on people's access to, consumption of and understanding of scientific information, as more people have turned to news outlets and social media platforms in an attempt to stay informed on COVID-19 public health measures. Our intensified reliance on technology has drastically increased the number of Americans that get their news from digital platforms. This shift has forced journalists to redefine the way they inform and engage readers on topics ranging as widely as politics, sports and public health. 

Prof. Neil Swidey (JOUR), director of the Brandeis Journalism Program and editor-at-large of the Boston Globe Magazine, moderated the event. The webinar began with a statement from University President Ron Leibowitz, who reminded the attendees of the goal of the talk. “The focus of this forum is not on the research being conducted by so many scientists and physicians to fight threats to public health, but on the urgent challenge of explaining science to the public and the role of the news media in the fight against the pandemic,” he said. Swidey then took over, introducing the featured guests: Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor on COVID-19 to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Dr. Atul Gawande, staff writer at The New Yorker and general surgeon at Brigham & Women's Hospital; and Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, a longtime health writer for the New York Times who is now Editor-in-Chief of Kaiser Health News. 

The panelists were invited to share what they believed was the greatest lesson, in terms of both public health and journalism, that they had learned from the pandemic. Fauci answered first, discussing the hardships of implementing public health measures at a time of political and social divisiveness. “The [lesson] that I think is most cogent is that if ever you want to have an historic pandemic, don’t have it at a time when there’s intense divisiveness in society.” Fauci said. “If you are going to fight a pandemic, it’s got to be the entire country pulling together.” 

Gawande continued on that theme, stressing the current weaknesses of science journalism, the increasing strength of pseudoscience and antiscience currents and the additional political tension added by last year’s election. With more than 500,000 COVID-19 deaths as of March 16 in the United States alone, Gawande stressed the importance of taking direct action to ensure accurate and relevant scientific knowledge is shared, as opposed to hoping that individuals will take it upon themselves to fact-check the information they come across online. “We can do a better job in science journalism and as public health leaders in pointing out how you come to recognize the difference between good science and pseudoscience,” he said. Doing so is difficult, he explained, because it requires teaching people to identify the hallmark characteristics of pseudoscience — cherry-picking data, making claims with no tangible proof and stating that dissenting views are being suppressed, for instance. 

Swidey then introduced the concept of "under-believers" — those who refuse to acknowledge public health guidelines — and "over-believers" — those who take the word of scientists and medical staff to be certain, unchanging facts. He referenced mask-wearing recommendations in the early stages of the pandemic, when the Surgeon General discouraged people from wearing them. “Now, the number one reason that science deniers use to support conspiracy theories about the government is the early flip-flop from the government on face masks,” Swidey said. 

Fauci pointed out that the Surgeon General’s recommendation stemmed from a lack of evidence that proved that face-coverings were effective outside of a healthcare setting, fear that the medical staff would face physical protective equipment shortages if the public was encouraged to purchase medical masks and the belief, which has now been disproven, that only symptomatic patients could spread the disease. “That became the calling card of 'Don’t listen to anything any of them say because they are wrong,'” Fauci said. He described this loss of trust as “one of the most painful things that I have gone through this past year.”

Rosenthal added, “I hate it being called a flip-flop when in fact it’s, as Dr. Fauci said, a product of learning. … It’s progress.” 

The panelists also discussed the difference between the younger and older populations in regards to health recommendations. From the start of the pandemic, “There was a large portion of the world that was listening … who took the information and changed their behavior accordingly,” Gawande said. The issue most often came with the younger age groups, who as Gawande and Fauci explained, are less likely to die from the disease and more likely to be asymptomatic carriers. 

The behavioral response from younger age groups is particularly concerning following Texas and Mississipi’s decision to reopen businesses without capacity limits and remove mask mandates in response to a decline in national cases and increased vaccination rates. Fauci insisted that current baseline levels are still “unacceptably high for any pulling back on mitigation.” Despite advice from the federal government, West Virginia, Arizona, Wyoming, Connecticut and Maryland have unveiled similar reopening plans as of press time. “The people who are the most vulnerable in Texas and Mississippi [will have to] shield themselves to the extent that they can,” Fauci said. 

Gawande briefly talked about his concerns with the “speed of science communication” and how it has contributed to skepticism from the general public and the scientific community. Normally, data collected as part of a scientific study is peer-reviewed prior to publication, a process that takes three to four weeks depending on the journal. With the pandemic, most of the data from COVID-19 research has been shared prior to peer review or publication, something Gawande refers to as “science by press release.” 

Fauci explained that data that was being released about vaccine effectiveness and therapeutic alternatives, although not peer-reviewed, was essential for drafting the most appropriate health guidelines in a time-sensitive manner. “I am sure that when it comes out in a peer-reviewed journal, it’s not going to be substantially different … [but you are right that] it adds a degree of skepticism,” he said. Fauci also discussed that, ethically, participants in the study and the investigators themselves must be briefed once the study concludes, which involves sharing preliminary data. 

Prior to leaving the event, Fauci extended his congratulations to all journalists, advising them to continue "reporting honestly." He said, “We are in a very critical phase right now. … It is like a tug of war, and it needs to be reported accurately with the data as it comes out.” 

The webinar continued with a discussion of Gawande’s Feb. 8 New Yorker piece, which highlights the struggles faced by Minot County, North Dakota as the pandemic progressed. The purpose of the piece was to help people understand and respect that, despite being skeptical of the data and choosing to ignore public health guidelines, “these are not people who have been oblivious to the losses.” He went on to say that there is a general feeling of discontent with the public health response among many individuals in small, rural towns — a feeling that, while partially shaped by political ideologies, is truly rooted in “feeling like the public health system is talking about deaths, deaths, deaths, deaths, without talking about the mental health costs, the suicide risk and the effect on everybody’s life,” he said. 

As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, Gawande shared some words of encouragement: “We are not going to get to a consensus, but we are going to have this battle, and out of it, humans change and evolve,” he said. Rosenthal added to that idea by discussing the importance of working on establishing a functioning national public health system. “We blew it on so many levels,” she said. “[But] it will end.” 


Editor’s Note -- News editor Jen Crystal is a Journalism Undergraduate Representative and editor in chief Gilda Geist is an office assistant for the Brandeis Journalism Department.