Journalism in the time of an epidemic
The web edition of this newspaper had an erroneous headline linking the novel coronavirus to a study on bats and bat-hunters in Nagaland. The headline of the story in the print edition was: “Study on bats and bat-hunters of Nagaland comes under scanner” (February 3). Before the correction was made, the headline in the online version read, “Coronavirus: Wuhan institute’s study on bats and bat hunters in Nagaland to be probed”. The report had nothing to do either with the novel coronavirus or with the research collaboration between India and China. Further, the headline was in antithesis to all the rules of reporting an epidemic. During an epidemic journalists should inform readers, not create unnecessary panic. Their work should not be the basis for wild conspiracy theories.
Problem with headline, infographic
Unfortunately the wrong headline in the web edition, along with an unrelated reference to coronavirus in the story, deflected attention from the epidemic. It also shifted focus from the issues that led to the probe on the team that studied the bats and bat-hunters in Nagaland. To make matters worse, the infographic alluded to secrecy, while the study itself is available as an open access article. The web edition was corrected with a disclaimer: “An earlier version of the headline of this article had mentioned coronavirus which is not directly linked to the story and also focused on Wuhan Institute, which is only one of the participants in the story. The headline has been suitably revised.”
While readers can criticise the report for its shortcomings in the headline and the infographic, it is important to point out that The Hindu did try to contact the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). As the report mentions, NCBS authorities were not available for an immediate response. On February 5, the newspaper carried a follow-up report that clarified the NCBS’s position. It explained the relationship between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the study: “They were listed co-authors only because they supplied reagents. This is a standard practice for scientific authorship.”
When the report on the study by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the NCBS and a few other foreign universities on the filovirus appeared, many readers raised pertinent questions. The guiding principle for a news ombudsman is to start from a position that all complaints are made in good faith and, equally, that no journalist comes to work to mislead readers. It means that journalists can err due to many reasons and it is the duty of the news organisations to effect visible mending when an error happens.
In the last four decades, journalists learned to distinguish between science communication and science journalism. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin has spoken about this crucial difference. “It’s really any kind of communicating of science, and that can have all sorts of agendas. It can encourage people to become scientists, or encourage scientists to talk about science, or encourage a particular policy, or advance the interests of whichever group is paying for the communication,” he observed. Brooke Borel, an Adjunct Faculty of The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, spelled out the difference clearly. She wrote: “Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from.”
Role of the science editor
Reporters and sub-editors sometimes invoke these issues to justify references to unrelated subjects, which are topical at a given moment, in the name of providing context. The role of the science editor does not end with assigning stories to reporters. Some stories may lie in the intersection of science, technology and policy. Apart from checking the story for its facts and authenticity, the science editor must clear the headline, the second deck that summarises the story, and the accompanying infographic. The task cannot be left to the desk, which may not have the necessary domain expertise. This requirement is non-negotiable, irrespective of the platform in which the story appears.
On February 9, The Hindu carried a detailed explainer, “A window into novel coronavirus transmission”, and an in-depth look at “How bats harbour several harmful viruses without falling sick”. These reports worked because there were no unrelated references. Journalism at the time of an epidemic needs additional caution.