It’s weird how my Twitter feed these days looks exactly like my Twitter feed from 12 days ago. Homeschooling tips. People doing things on balconies. Animals roaming in emptied cities. War metaphors. Zoom. Camus.
I’ve seen all this before. Only this time the flow is mostly in English, while the previous wave was in Italian, my native language. On March 19th, Italy became the country in the world with the highest reported number of COVID-19 victims – 3,405 as of this writing – surpassing the death tally in China, which on the same day announced for the first time no new domestic cases.
As the epicenter of the pandemic moves West, I’m seeing the recent past happening again through the eyes of Americans. But, along with self-replicating and mostly inconsequential memes and tropes, this new wave is re-upping the many challenges journalists face when covering these unprecedented circumstances.
Media in the age of the coronavirus have to deal with an inevitable spike of misinformation, hoaxes, and fake news of all sorts. The highly-emotional, fear-ridden ecosystem that the pandemic generated is the ideal hotbed for a surge in misinformation. These tendencies are sometimes bolstered by political leaders, and the usual suspects are not missing the opportunity to sow panic among rival countries.
But journalists who thunder against misinformation occasionally contribute to it, too.
A recent case involving test swabs exported to the U.S. by an Italian company illustrates the point.
On March 18th, the online journal Defense One reported that the U.S. Air Force was flying 500,000 swabs for COVID-19 testing kits from Italy to Memphis, Tennessee. The supplies were part of a deal with Copan Diagnostics Inc., a company based in the town of Brescia, in the region of Lombardy, hit hard by the epidemic. The Italian legacy newspaper La Repubblica, one of the most broadly circulated in the country, gave the story a radically different twist.
In a widely discussed article, it argued that Copan Diagnostics sold the testing components to the U.S. instead of serving the local health care facilities that desperately needed them. “We had a colossal stock of diagnostic kits available just a few miles away from the COVID-19 epicenter. These are tools our regions are looking for in any possible way in order to curb the contagion, but they are not able to find them,” wrote La Repubblica, implying that the decision to sell swabs abroad prevented people in Italy from getting the vital assistance they needed. A disturbing indictment, given the dramatic emergency Lombardy is going through. The story indulged in the trite war metaphor, insisting the deal proved that in this conflict “every nation acts for itself, using every means to get the right weapons against the virus.”
People on social media reacted furiously to the story, but almost nothing in it was true.
Copan Diagnostics can produce 720,000 swabs per day and recently sold nearly 1 million of them to Italian hospitals, some five times more than the total number of tests performed in the country so far. What slows down testing is lab analysis, not the availability of components, as Copan Diagnostics explained in a press release. The company has the capacity to both match domestic needs and serve other markets that are experiencing a shortage in testing swabs. It’s good news for everyone involved, but it didn’t align with the “everybody-against-everybody” narrative that some outlets now find so compelling.
Misinformation is just one dimension of the challenge media faces. Another relevant aspect concerns the way journalists deal with scientists.
The new coronavirus forced almost every reporter on every beat to rely upon throngs of researchers and scholars. In Italy, during the early stage of the outbreak, all media were saturated with interviews with virologists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease experts of all sorts. In light of the alleged death of expertise and the recent rise of anti-intellectual instincts, that’s reassuring.
But soon enough readers found out that experts disagree with each other, sometimes sharply. They furiously quarrel on Twitter, too. Some of them were downplaying the threat; others were suggesting from early on aggressive measures for social distancing and lockdown. Both alarmists and under-estimators had their own team of quotable experts.
The case involving Maria Rita Gismondo, a credentialed and well-known researcher who heads the microbiology lab at the Sacco hospital in Milan, is particularly striking. A post she wrote on her Facebook page in late February became viral; she later deleted it: “It looks crazy to me! We took an infection just a little more serious than the flu for a lethal pandemic. It’s not like that. Look at the numbers. It’s not a pandemic! Last week, flu killed 217 people, the coronavirus only 1.”
Dr. Gismondo became the go-to expert for deniers and downplayers. Remarkably, even after the views she espoused were disproved by the World Health Organization—and even more adamantly by what happened in China, South Korea, Japan, Iran, and eventually by the devastating death toll in Italy—media outlets kept interviewing her.
This pandemic is revealing a misconception about “experts” that is all too common in the media, less so among science journalists, which, sadly, are nearly extinct in Italy. Experts are generally considered as monolithic providers of evidence that is both incontrovertible and reducible to simple soundbites; but scientific debate is by definition complicated, nuanced, and even messy—a dispute among competing hypotheses that need to be verified through a great deal of work and time.
This is also relevant for data, which may appear to be the most objective and universal measure to understand reality. In the age of pandemic, we are all data journalists.
Except we are not.
Armies of data scientists are working on different models to understand, for instance, why the mortality rate of COVID-19 in Italy or Spain is much higher than in South Korea, and also different from the numbers in Germany and the U.S. These efforts are absolutely crucial, but they have to be balanced with a heavy dose of caution—and maybe also with the lost art of admitting that we really don’t know.
In Italy’s case, for instance, we don’t even know the actual number of victims. People die each day in their houses or in retirement homes, sometimes with symptoms compatible with COVID-19. But because they are not hospitalized, they don’t get tested. Enrico Bucci, a biologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, explained in a lengthy interview that “the numbers coming from Lombardy at this point don’t mean anything,” as the saturation of the health care system makes the data set totally unreliable.
These are just a few examples of some aspects of this global, multi-layered story that will require further reflection as the pandemic unfolds. There are many things we don’t know, and, as journalists, we should strive to figure them out. But some of the early mistakes and inaccuracies made in my own country suggest that, as we dig into the stories, we should question some of our assumptions and be very careful about drawing early conclusions.
In normal times, journalists are praised for their courage – and rightly so. But in these extraordinary times, it may well be that the most prized virtue is prudence.