In a new JAMA viewpoint, a School of Public Health researcher and a health research journalist outline common ways that media, governments, and industry and academic public relations press releases have incompletely and misleadingly reported coronavirus research, and how they can do better.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created perhaps the most challenging time for science communication in decades. Races are underway in parallel: to find answers to perplexing coronavirus questions, to announce research findings to clinical and scientific colleagues, and to report those findings to a confused and concerned global audience,” write Richard Saitz, professor and chair of community health sciences, and Gary Schwitzer, founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.
“There are no winners in these races if harm—even though unintentional—is wrought by the dissemination of hurried, incomplete, biased misinformation,” they write. “Trust in science, medicine, public relations and journalism may be in jeopardy in the intersection where these professions meet.”
By way of example, Saitz and Schwitzer describe how three drugs—remdesivir, dexamethasone, and hydroxychloroquine—have been touted as COVID cures, without explanations of the limits of the evidence. These rushed and incomplete announcements have led, among other consequences, to shortages, government stockpiling, and a baffled public: In the case of hydroxychloroquine, they write, “News stories and social media reports took readers on a roller coaster ride, alternately reporting efficacy, lack of efficacy, and harm, reporting dutifully on the results of each latest study.”
Instead, Saitz and Schwitzer recommend greater caution and more detail, including highlighting limitations, specifying patient populations, and describing new findings in the larger context of previous research. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but, they write, “It is important that complexity be mentioned and considered even if it is not popular among layperson readers.”
Read the full editorial here.