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Mutant coronavirus story upsets scientists about preprint journalism

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Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

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:

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 covid, 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.

Addendum:

Please note that the Los Angeles Times updated its original “mutant coronavirus” story at 8:35 pm (presumably PDT) on May 5.  New quotes have been added since we reviewed the original story version that, it appears, was online for more than 12 hours.

The Philadelphia Inquirer countered the LA Times story on May 5: There’s no real evidence that the coronavirus is becoming more contagious, despite what you might have seen online

Another reasonable story was published by the Washington Post in the evening of May 5: Researchers hypothesize that a highly contagious strain of the coronavirus is spreading, but other experts remain skeptical

And another better piece of journalism was published in The Atlantic May 6: The Problem With Stories About Dangerous Coronavirus Mutations

 

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