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Reuters report is another classic case study in how NOT to cover COVID-19 news

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Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He has been a health care journalist for 47 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

Reuters: Italian scientist Alberto Zangrillo

Four days ago, Reuters reported from Rome, “New coronavirus losing potency, top Italian doctor says.”

The statement that COVID-19 “has become much less lethal” and that “the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy” caused an uproar in the global scientific community.

But it was Reuters that gave the scientist an international megaphone.

Journalist Roxanne Khamsi was one of the first I saw to react to the Reuters story on Twitter:

Indeed, it was a train wreck Reuters story.  A rushed 348-word brief, the first two-thirds of which were nothing but stenography of the scientist’s opinion, with no clear evidence to back it up.

We often hear that science is self-correcting. In this case, journalism employed some self-correcting steps on social media and in this story from the Washington Post, “Experts dispute reports that coronavirus is becoming less lethal.” The Post story calmly explained:

The consensus among other experts interviewed Monday is that the clinical findings in Italy likely do not reflect any change in the virus itself.

(The Italian scientist’s) clinical observations are more likely a reflection of the fact that with the peak of the outbreak long past, there is less virus in circulation, and people may be less likely to be exposed to high doses of it. In addition, only severely sick people were likely to be tested early on, compared with the situation now when even those with mild symptoms are more likely to get swabbed, experts said.

And a “What You Need To Know” piece in Forbes stated:

“As most horror movies have probably taught you, don’t make any assumptions that a threat has subsided until you are really, positively, absolutely sure that it has.”

Reuters itself published another story one day later, explaining:

World Health Organization experts and a range of other scientists said on Monday there was no evidence to support an assertion by a high-profile Italian doctor that the coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic has been losing potency. …

“The suggestion by the Italian doctor is potentially dangerous as it gives false reassurance based on no evidence,” said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “There is no scientific evidence for there having been a change in the coronavirus. It’s a highly transmittable and highly contagious disease. We need to be as on guard as ever.”

Why weren’t those calls made to WHO and a range of other scientists before publishing the sensational Sunday story? What in the world justifies rushing a 348-word story to publication on a Sunday without doing extra research and reporting? Just because a scientist said it? COVID-19 journalism that devolves to that level of dreck is dangerous.

Reuters must examine its editorial decision-making. News spreads like a virus – globally – and causes harm when reported the way Reuters reported this story.

At the very end of the Reuters story is a link to Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles. One of them is this:

That no effort shall be spared to expand, develop, and adapt the news and other services and products of Thomson Reuters so as to maintain its leading position in the international news and information business.

It’s pretty clear that effort was spared in this example.

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