Mutant coronavirus story upsets scientists about preprint journalism

Health 3 weeks ago HealthNewsReview 33

This is the way many of my days begin these days, being blasted out of my chair by smart skepticism and criticism on coronavirus issues on social media.  Today’s lift-off came from a virology researcher at Cornell:

This LATimes article is INFURIATING. So much misinformation based on just that preprint. They took quotes from the author’s PERSONAL FACEBOOK PAGE. An anonymous quote that this is ‘classic Darwinian evolution.’ Commentary on viral load and pathogenesis from a toxicologist. pic.twitter.com/dN2T4oYOCa

— Brian Wasik (@BrianRWasik) May 5, 2020

You can read the full Los Angeles Times story yourself. I’ll give you the opening paragraph:

Scientists have identified a new strain of the coronavirus that has become dominant worldwide and appears to be more contagious than the versions that spread in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study led by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I’ll leave it to the scientists to clarify the significance of this report.

But, once again, the way in which this was communicated to the public is troubling. Virologist Wasik’s Tweet hit on two big communication issues:

  1. So much of the story came from a pre-print.  You can read our backgrounder on preprints to see the pitfalls of journalists reporting on them.
  2. The first quotes in the story – presumably assigning some prominence to them – were lifted from the researcher’s Facebook page.

Really? Is that the way scary mutant virus stories should be sourced in one of the nation’s leading newspapers?

Each of those steps demonstrate how, on some days, some stories are dramatically lowering the bar for editorial integrity in journalism.

And the story’s take-home message for readers in the general public is hair-raising, fence-straddling, vagary.

While the Los Alamos report is highly technical and dispassionate, Korber expressed some deep personal feelings about the implications of the finding in her Facebook post.

“This is hard news,” wrote Korber, “but please don’t only be disheartened by it.”

One researcher, commenting on Twitter, called the story “crap.”

Another Tweeted, “With hyper-intense interest in cover, papers get amplified by journalists who lack the expertise to critique or contextualize them.”

Another wrote that it “Messes up the (general population), but we’re in a spin already.”

Wasik tweeted later:

This work comes from an excellent research group in HIV work. This bioinformatic pipeline will have real utility. They got a bit over their skis on title, conclusions.  They deserve a strong and good-faith peer review.  This article and ‘discourse’ is not that. (emphasis added)

You can read one entire thread here.

And the impact on readers?  Read the comments following the online LA Times story to see how many people are dripping with sarcasm and fear fatigue.

Journalists can, and must, do better.  Thankfully, in many corners of today’s beleaguered daily journalism, they are.

 

 

 


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