Avoid single patient, single source COVID-19 stories – especially on “cures”

This is a lesson for news readers from Fargo to Duluth to Toronto and places in between and beyond.  The lesson is that you can’t jump to conclusions based on news stories about a single patient, or about a single researcher’s belief in a cure.

Single anecdote stories

There simply isn’t much you can say about apparent treatment results in one person.  Except that it only seems to be apparent. It’s not proof that a treatment worked.  And it’s only in one person.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead published a story, “Man credits treatment method that’s almost 100 years old with saving his life from COVID-19.”

It wasn’t a bad local story. It contained a lot of information.  I’ll offer some tips later on.  But it’s what happened with the story after it appeared in Fargo-Moorhead that caught my eye. More on that later, too.

The story began:

Gene Bad Hawk’s battle with the coronavirus began with headaches and fever. Over the ensuing 20 days since his diagnosis he would bounce between motel isolation rooms and hospital beds.

A bit deeper in the story:

Given his deteriorating condition, Bad Hawk’s doctors at Essentia Health decided he was suitable for a research trial and he readily agreed to receive what’s called convalescent plasma — blood plasma containing neutralizing antibodies from a patient who recovered from COVID-19

The story explained that:

Essentia has access to the plasma through a trial conducted by the Mayo Clinic. Although early reports are encouraging, there still is no clear proof that convalescent plasma is effective.

The Mayo Clinic patient information website itself has stronger caveats than what the story contained, including this simple but important reminder for anyone in any trial: “You might not experience any benefit.”

Some tips for how this story could have been better

That reminder – “You might not experience any benefit” –  could have been in the story, which could have linked to the Mayo Clinic website page for patient care and health information.

So this one man featured in the story thinks he got a benefit. Of course, that can’t be proven. The story quoted an Essentia physician:

“We have given it to six patients at Essentia Health in Fargo,” he said. “We have seen improvement in some,” but two patients died.

How many is “some” in  “improvement in some”? How much improvement? The story should have given these details – and whether any of the trial results have been published.  It also could have emphasized that no conclusions can be drawn from the experience of one person.

Is this Fargo? Or Duluth?

I didn’t see the original Fargo-Moorhead newspaper story.  I saw it on the website of the Duluth News Tribune.  The papers are owned by the same company.

I live in the land between Fargo and Duluth and I know that Essentia Health has facilities in both cities. So, having seen it in the Duluth paper, I assumed this took place at Essentia in Duluth.  It didn’t. The Duluth paper simply picked up a freebie story from a sibling paper in Fargo to help fill the day’s paper.  Essentia in Duluth is also part of the Mayo plasma trial, but that wasn’t mentioned when the Duluth paper copied the Fargo story.

So what relevance did this one-person story out of Fargo have for Duluth readers?  This is happening more often with declining revenues and staffing for many news organizations.  The day’s news is often filled with recycled stories apparently without enough thought put into what it means – or often, doesn’t mean – for locals.

Now on to Toronto…and a cure?

A friend in Canada sent me this column from the Toronto Star:  This U of T scientist says he’s invented a ‘cure’ for COVID-19. Will patients ever see it? It’s behind a paywall, so unless you subscribe you’ll only see a headline, a photo, and a few words.

The column is nearly 2,000 words long, which is unusual in a newspaper.  One could infer that the paper thought this was particularly worthy of 2,000 words. Here’s how the story is framed:

When Sachdev Sidhu talks about what his team has accomplished in their lab at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, the words are entirely his own. And they stun.

A cure. For the coronavirus. For SARS-CoV-2. For the COVID-19 disease that has killed upwards of 320,000 people around the planet.

A knockout punch.

“Yes, I believe ‘cure’ is the proper word,’’ the molecular engineer says, almost blandly. “They would no longer be ill. They would no longer have the virus in their system. That’s a cure.’’

He’s done it. He’s certain.

You might be thinking: “Wow, that research team must have collected some impressive clinical trial results.” Right? If you could read on, you’d learn:

…the lab will be doing small animal tests for safety over the next few weeks.

In the entire ~2,000 words, the only scientist quoted is Professor Sidhu. An agent or publicist couldn’t get better results than this. Will the Toronto Star profile other leading researchers with similar fanfare?  If not, why not?

The columnist who wrote the piece is known for covering sports and current affairs.  COVID-19 research news is not sports news. Maybe the newspaper should assign a health/medical/science journalist to write about such stuff – if there are any left to take on the assignment.

Single-mindedness

Just as the patient in our first example has every right to believe that his life was saved by an experiment, so is this scientist entitled to believe that he has “the cure.” However, their personal beliefs are not necessarily newsworthy.

To be clear, as it should be already, this analysis is not about those two individuals.  It is about the responsibility of journalism to provide evidence, to independently vet claims, and to be accurate, balanced and complete.

The cutbacks in staffing in news organizations are deep and terribly disruptive to quality journalism.  But we still do have terrific journalism about COVID-19 being delivered every day by leading news organizations.  The news organizations that can’t evaluate evidence, can’t analyze claims, can’t find independent sources (which we can help with) – these organizations would be better off not reporting on the pandemic  Because when they mislead, they harm more than help.


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