How Media Meddles in Science & Health: Contemporary Challenges

By: Lilia Brahimi – Blog Writer

Recalling the tragic outcome of the Ebola pandemic just two years ago might be painful for many of us, but, investigating the after effect of the management and communication of the crisis reveals to be even more troublesome. As of March 27th, 2016, Ebola has taken 11,373 victims and accounts for over 28 000 cases. Beyond the obvious reasons such as the lack of trained medical staff and appropriate infrastructure, we inevitably come to ask ourselves: Who is to blame? In the presence of respected institutions
such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and countless enforced regulations, how did this crisis possibly get so out of hand? More generally, to look at the situation retrospectively, we must highlight the increasing role of the media in communicating scientific and public health news and the political forces that either undermine or positively contribute to their efforts. From the Ebola pandemic to the gender bias in communicating science, let us examine what are some of the contemporary realities facing the clashing worlds of science and media.

Programming the End of Ebola

Mapping and monitoring the evolution of this pandemics was always at the very core of the authorities’ mandate. The World Bank, the New Development Bank, WHO, and many other agencies have collaborated to gather statistics and data on infection spreading. However, the key findings of these datasets has oftentimes not been taken and applied into the real world  to their full extent. The exception is when the data is used to create innovative apps to help residents in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone contact their local health facility with a simple text message. This was developed by a team gathered at a hackathon — a marathon of hacking — called “The Computing for Ebola Challenge”. Initiatives such as this serve to demonstrate the importance and provide an insight on the use of social media  in disease prevention and control during such as large-scale health crisis.

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Source : Ebola Virus, Wikipedia

There are also similar inventions as the one I mentioned above: stories about teams of local or foreign developers coming up with social networking apps for cell phones to remind people about prevention habits have surfaced quite a few times in our newsfeeds. However, the fact that these initiatives remain so underrated and are kept in the category of “informal strategies” leaves us to think that policy-making organizations are completely out-of-touch with reality. Regardless of their good intentions, organizations such as WHO sometimes lag far behind individual initiatives, often because of the staggering amount of paperwork and administrative barriers that are common in the NGO world. On the other hand, perhaps this time, the mishandling of the crisis was not due to these practical barriers but rather to the ones they set between themselves and the media. As we shall see shortly, history shows that the media has consistently played a decisive role in shaping the narrative during situations such as this one.

Invincible flu and National Security

In 2015, Carlo Caduff wrote about a topic that would make any epidemiologist shiver: the avian flu. More specifically, he wrote about a 2005 study on the genetic sequence of an invincible strain of human influenza virus being uncovered under Dr. Taronna Maines’ laboratory. It was somehow comparable to the 1918 H1N1 influenza virus that infected roughly 500 million people. Interestingly enough, the book focuses on the concerns over security that rose after this paper was published. Sensitive information pertaining to security matters has always been rigorously controlled by governments, through National Security laws and information laws. More contemporarily, biological threats prove some troubling resemblance with the well-known traditional security matters such as nuclear weapons threat, at least in the ways Governmental bodies and the media work to establish a climate of danger and fear. “At stake in these stories are the changing relations between science, security and the state”, says Caduff. Perhaps the most striking side of this story was the implication of the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, which insisted for further review of the paper by the National Security Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), considerably delaying the publishing of the research. Usually, newly implemented federal security bodies sound comforting for the average citizen but in modern day, they are increasingly viewed with a critical perspective.

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Source: Science of Common Life, by A. T. Simmons & E. Stenhouse. MacMillan & Co, 1912

However entwined the faith of the scientific community and the state may have been in the past, we are entering a new era in terms of control of information and sharing of new discoveries. Involving a voting body to determine whether the benefits of publishing a study outweigh the potential risks of putting this information in the public’s hands, is definitely a controversial topic. Additionally, we must account for the increasing political and media pressure to take a stance in regards to the information published, the additional administrative costs linked to increasing paperwork in microbiological research, and the equity issues arising from imposing such costs. The independence of the scientific community and the transparency with which it operates require, according to many, total independence from any political agenda. This need for a transparent and supportive- instead of stressful and repressive- environment is fundamental for sustaining the natural flow of science. After all, science, in my opinion, is profoundly founded on spontaneity and imagination. And indeed, very few biomedical research now have the luxury to rely on these two sentiments to pursue their goals, since they need to undergo extensive and stressful approval processes from various authorities. Yet as contemporary microbiological research, such as the 2005 discovery became tainted by media dramatization, it is needless to say that the media will have the most crucial role of shaping the popular narrative of future ground-breaking scientific discoveries.

As one science writer for the Washington Post, David Brown, brilliantly says, “Of all nationally compelling news events, those involving science are the ones in which successful communication most depends on simple commands of facts”. Indeed, the technical and counterintuitive nature of science has historically made it irreconcilable with popular news stories. That said, when political and security issues, which belong to a different category of news, come to mix with expertise-requiring scientific matters,  there is oftentimes great distortion in the information presented. This is partly attributable to the fact that all journalists are not necessarily familiar with the very fundamental principles of the scientific method- one which preaches parsimony. This principle supports that “unusual diseases or presentations of diseases are, by definition, unusual and should not be readily invoked”, to borrow Brown’s words. And yet, it goes without saying that most sensationalist news titles on emerging biological threats did everything but respect the parsimony principle. In the context of the avian flu mentioned above, a New York Times article compared displaying the genetic sequence of the virus to the public to publishing “the design of a weapon of mass destruction”, emphasizing on the potential outcomes if ill-intentioned individuals were to get their hands on this set of information. The big question  behind all of this remains, what should we do as readers and writers of science? One thing remains certain; the press will always have a way to dramatize research findings into sensationalist news. In  the end, the main lesson is that there is clash between the media’s method of rigorously selecting information and the scientific method of presenting all the empirical facts.

In a comparable manner, the transmission of information even within sciences has long been studied by social scientists. Evelyn Fox Keller, a theoretical physicist, devoted a substantial part of her career to the “Rhetoric of Sciences”. Since media provides information and information is language, there are a few lessons we can learn from her brilliant work from the mid 1980s that are still of relevance today. In Reflections on Gender and Science, her main arguments revolves around the gender-bias in the communication of science and the patriarchal metaphor largely expressed in how scientists describe their work. She studied how the very concept of objectivity was historically associated with masculinity, whilst femininity was conceived as the carrier of emotions, a symbol of nature and subjectivity. To believe that this philosophy is gone is incorrect as communicating science is a deeply multifaceted reality, and starts in the very values attributed to the discipline you are studying. Moreover, in an interview with Bill Moyers back in 1990, Keller expressed very strongly how the language and the goals of science are deeply interconnected, which leads us to ask : what would be science like if such bias did not exist, and how would it differ from what its endeavour is now?

When it comes to scientific crises- which often result of health crises- these patterns of scientific journalism may be just as damaging as outright false, misleading, and fraudulent news. Considering the irrefutable impact of the press on readers’ allegiances and beliefs, articles on scientific discovery appearing in the popular press should be subjected to great scrutiny. From overstating risk factors to misinterpreting correlation with causation, the consequences of sloppy reporting of scientific studies are becoming more exposed to the public. After all, at each step of the way, information gets lost and this is valuable information. When readers do not get the full pictures, who can really blame them for misinterpreting the painting?

Lilia is a U1 Cell/Molecular Biology and International Development Studies student at McGill. She has a particular interest in Global Health policymaking as well as equitable health advocacy. 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of OpenMedia McGill.

Sources:
Daniel A. Medina, QUARTZ, These Hackers Are Developing Apps To Spread the End of Ebola, https://qz.com/279042/these-hackers-are-developing-apps-to-stop-the-spread-of-ebola-in-west-africa/
Suerie Moon et al., Will Ebola change the game? Ten essential reforms before the next pandemic. The report of the Harvard-LSHTM Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola, The Lancet : Health Policy, 2015;386; 2204-21,
Wasiu Olalekan Adebimpe et al., The relevance of the social networking media in Ebola virus disease prevention and control in Southwestern Nigeria, Pan African Medical Journal, 2015;22. (Supp1):7, Online
Carlos Caduff, The Pandemics Perhaps: Dramatic Events in a Culture of Danger. Univ of California Press, 2015
David Brown, The Role of the Media in Bioterrorism in Beyond Anthrax : Weaponization of Infectious Diseases, p. 295-313, Humana Press, 2009.
Atul Gawande, The Mistrust of Science, The New Yorker, June 10, 2016.
Bill Moyers, Evelyn Fox Keller: The Gendered Language of Science, Moyers & Company, May 6th 1990, http://billmoyers.com/content/evelyn-fox-keller/
David Rettew, Top 3 ways the Media Screws up Reporting Science, Psychology Today, April 29th 2014, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/abcs-child-psychiatry/201404/top-3-ways-the-media-screws-reporting-science

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