Unfair Media is Not Kind to Science

The worldwide pandemic of the Coronavirus has dominated the news and it is making people sick with worry. But it’s not just the virus that people need to worry about. Its the way the media are hyping the virus and the politicians on both sides are using it to score points with each other.

There are several example of science being distorted by the media with their impartial opinions and agenda driven narrative. Most of the time the news programmes like to twist the science of the Coronavirus as a non-story that can generate headlines and bring in more viewers.

In 2012 I read a book by Mark Henderson called The Geek Manifesto. In it was a chapter on how the media is unfair and unbalanced in its reporting of science. The book is a popular science book about the importance of accepting geeks in political and social objectives for advancing progress in the modern world. In the case of the media and science Henderson writes that ‘the media thrives on controversy and novelty, and rightly so’.

Take the way the BBC and Sky are handling this story of the Covid-19 outbreak. They have got wall to wall specials in the schedule about how the virus will impact society like the sky is falling and the apocalypse is upon us. People are panic buying toilet paper and hand sanitizer from stores across the country in a selfish manner. Reporters are often driven to scare by fatal attraction in order to encourage people to respond to the crisis of a pandemic and give the reporters something to enhance the story. Its rare that they an equal amount of coverage to the saviours that can undo the virus’s effect and give people hope and optimism.

I feel really disgusted about the way the media is making a drama out of this crisis. The effect of this unfair and unbalanced reporting can lead to a very messy and unrepairable damage to the public. I should know, because I as an autistic have been very badly affected by this type of reporting many years ago by the MMR scare.

In 1998 Doctor Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in the Lancet that connected the MMR jab to autistic spectrum disorder, whereby the symptoms of the condition were caused by chemicals used in the needles resulting in what he called brain injuries. The story was lapped up by the media in such a way that they gave Dr Wakefield the platform of a maverick that defied the medical establishment. Several doctors and scientists didn’t share his his view that the MMR jab cases autism and Wakefield has little evidence to support his claims. Epidemiological research has proven countless times that vaccines are safe.

However the media did not take much attention of the medical establishment’s counter argument or do much to question Wakefield’s paper. The whole story as completely groundless. Parents were confused thinking that they might risk their children’s safety if they took the MMR jab. At that time I had been diagnosed autistic three years previously and this condition that I had was now being depicted in the media as a terrible sickness of the brain caused by a life saving jab. It effectively made me stigmatised and even more resented by my own family. The story was so badly received by the public that children with autism were seen as a burden on their parents. This affected my place in society by so much it made resentful of myself and rejecting my autism.

In 2002 at the British Press Awards, Lorraine Fraser of the Sunday Telegraph won an award for her contribution to the media as Health Science writer of the year. She was one of Wakefield’s loyal supporters and contributed massively to coverage of the anti-MMR brigade. Later that same year it had been revealed that Wakefield’s paper was flawed and hoaxed. He had been paid £400,000 by a lawyer who was looking for evidence for a client to use against vaccine makers. The research he had conducted was done with no more than 12 children and it was biased in favour of discrediting the MMR jab.

The damage that had been done was more severe by the media than by Wakefield’s profiteering medical scandal. In the year’s following the story the number of children receiving the MMR jab reduced by up to 20%. Because of the way the story had frightened the public they were put off taking the jab. This resulted in more measles cases across the country when they were trying to save people from dying because of it. To this day the media will influence people’s behaviour with grossly exaggerated facts about bad science. To some of them a thorough examination of the facts don’t matter.

One of the big under represented aspects of this coronavirus saga is the amount of work that doctors and scientists are doing to find a cure. The story is just full of hysteria induced panic with press conferences from politicians and interviews from statisticians making estimates of the death toll. There is hope on the horizon from Israel, Britain and China. In Israel a vaccine could be brought to market soon and at the time of writing I have just found out that the Coronavirus has been slowed down in it’s tracks. There’s also been some progress in developing a cure using current drugs and medicines in a concoction to halt the spread of the disease.

These messages of hope should be at the forefront of the media reports into the Covid-19 pandemic. Not just the entirety of it being on the organised chaos that the public are frightened about. The actual science is not being communicated to the public in a fair and decent manner. What I can see here is a bias that is tied to the agenda of the broadcasters to play the story up to it’s full potential for the reporters to play with. This extends to the other scientific stories of our time like global warming, nuclear energy, climate change, GM crops, space exploration, alternative energy, etc.

What I needed is a more proactive approach to dealing with science in the media. The scientists and the geeks need to be allowed to engage directly with the media and the public by presenting their evidence in an impartial way. During the Brexit deadlock and in Britain’s struggle to get out of the European Union most experts in the science side of things were pro-Remain academics hand picked by the broadcasters.

This is a perfect analogy of how expertise is showcased in the media. Especially as this was branded as Project Fear. I saw few science experts from pro-Leave groups who wanted science to transcend from the EU and be shared with the world. Climate activists tell people and governments on the news to listen to the scientists, but the BBC doesn’t show the actual scientists with and optimism to fix the planet. The scientists get vary weary about presenting themselves to the media and hesitate to present their views for fear that they will be misrepresented or quoted out of context, or that there work will be misunderstood and dumbed down.

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