The Science

“Unfortunately, viruses and pandemics are unpredictable. When I oversaw the nation’s strategic national stockpile, one of the most needed items that we didn’t stock was a crystal ball. ”

– Julie Gerberding, former director of the Centers for Disease Control, at a September 2009 pandemic planning conference for business groups.

Trying to understand how the influenza virus works, how it can turn from a bearable seasonal disease into a large-scale killer, and when it might do so, inevitably leads to an investigation of the inner mechanisms of living cells. What do the little shapes called H and N proteins that sit on the virus’s outer membrane do once the virus has entered a human body? How come this influenza virus, unlike so many other living things, has eight individual gene segments that replicate separately instead of one long chain of genes?

It is a good time to ask: Never did scientists understand more about the molecular structure and workings of viruses, including flu viruses. But the single most important thing for journalists to be aware of as they follow scientific discoveries related to the flu is that this does not mean virologists have a firm grip on all that is going on with influenza viruses.

This chapter provides an overview of what scientists know, and don’t know, about the virus that causes the flu. It explains what “subtype A, B or C” means, what the H and the N stand for, and how viruses jump from one species to another. It takes a look at how flu viruses change—an aspect of the story not yet fully understood by scientists—and how vaccines and antiviral medications work. You will also find summaries of what every journalist needs to know about avian flu and swine flu.

As they catch up with the at times overwhelming details of the influenza virus’s promiscuity, reporters and editors new to flu science can find guidance in two crucial lessons from the experience of science journalism:

1. Know what kind of science story you are covering, as there are two types of science reporting:
a. One breaks down to a lay audience complex scientific concepts and explanations that are widely accepted as facts. It deals with a lot of certainty as it covers what has been replicated in studies many times, and is not questioned by the majority of researchers. Here, the job of the reporter is to make the information accessible and interesting, and explain why it is relevant. A common language of how to talk about these facts has often been established, though good reporters will expand it.
b. In the other category, stories aim to follow and narrate the active pursuit of new knowledge. They deal with a lot of uncertainty as they cover cutting-edge science, an activity that is ripe with new hypotheses and sometimes contradicting theories. Often, there is a fair amount of disagreement, as various approaches bring to light different details of a bigger picture not yet fully understood. Here, the job of the reporter is to not report each new study as a fact but rather as a piece of a puzzle that has not been completed. Journalists need to explain why a particular piece is relevant and how it fits into the unfinished puzzle at that point in time. Often, reporting several studies and approaches as a summary works better than a news story on each individual snippet (a good example are two Fall 2009 studies on the benefits of masks versus respirators that came to contradicting results).

Also, in this category of science reporting, journalists are often the first to try and communicate to a lay audience the details of a new finding and what it might mean. Together with scientists open to public discourse, they play an important role in developing a language of how people will talk about, understand and critically examine discoveries and their implications.
2. Don’t fall for naïve balance. Obviously, the flu story deals with cutting-edge science—and a lot of uncertainty. When covering uncertainty, however, news reporting often retreats to what science journalists call “naïve balance”: Some scientists say that human activity is an important factor contributing to global warming. Other scientists say that there is no such connection… It sounds as though there is significant debate even though at the time this was reported the overwhelming majority of scientists worldwide had long agreed on the role of human activity in climate change and only a small group disagreed.

At the core of this kind of reporting are both a newsroom’s good old journalistic instinct to stay neutral on issues of debate and individual reporters and editors being overwhelmed by the scientific, political and cultural complexity that certain topics entail.

Examples of naïve-balance reporting were frequent in Fall 2009, when the H1N1 pandemic vaccine was rushed out and the anti-vaccine advocates used people’s uneasy feelings about the vaccine to make their points. Journalists tried to help their audience sort through the mess, but often failed to separate reasonable questions about some vaccines (and their makers) or about government-led vaccine campaigns in general from the facts about the safety of this particular pandemic vaccine. Instead, they ‘balanced’ the story by giving both views equal weight. (See Challenges for Individuals: Vaccinations: Should I get a shot? for some examples of good reporting on this issue). While journalists can not and should not be experts, they need to be expert enough to find out if there is a  consensus among scientists on an issue or not, to identify independent sources and to ask the right questions (read how veteran flu reporter Helen Branswell does it).

For more on how journalists can find better ways to handle the complex details of this story, also see Coming to Terms with Uncertainty and our chapter on Pandemic Reporting.