Missing stats imperil our ability to communicate health risks for the pre-existing global crisis. Here’s what we can learn from coverage of COVID-19

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We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and there’s a difficult fact that many people have been grappling with: it’s impossible to know how many cases of COVID-19 there are.

This doesn’t mean health agencies and researchers haven’t been trying their best to measure, analyze, and share this data to track exposures and, on a larger scale, help us understand this virus better.

Collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about a global issue is difficult in the best of times, but we now have different regions in varying levels of lockdown, and despite the best efforts to communicate and share information openly and transparently, there have been inevitable challenges and disagreements happening every step of the way. Different cities, provinces, countries and agencies have different ways of measuring and sharing their data. There are disparate record-keeping practices, differences in testing access, and backlogs across regions. Canada has lagged in collecting race-based data on COVID-19, a virus that is disproportionately infecting and killing members of Black communities in the United States, England and Wales — which we know because of active data collection. 

Where data gathering practices falter, communication challenges follow. 

We’ve seen this problem before. 

There are strong parallels between pandemics and climate change. The pace of these global crises is, of course, different: the former can see major changes and developments on a daily basis, whereas the latter is a comparatively longer-term problem, one some media have struggled to prioritize. In many ways, pandemics like COVID-19 can be easier for the public to understand, and for the news media to cover: pandemics feel less abstract, as there is a sense of immediacy to infection rates, death tolls and government responses. We know that when it comes to slower-moving, more abstract issues, there are particular challenges for both news coverage and public understanding. 

And communities are getting that message resoundingly from journalism, with 51.3 per cent of residents, at least in Canada, relying on traditional media for that critical coverage.

That sense of immediacy about health outcomes is driven by a steady stream of daily updates from public health figures and political leaders, exposure and mortality rates highlighted prominently on televisions and news feeds. The public is being urged to get their information directly from health agencies, but the news media has played a central role in gathering and reporting information in a way that’s understandable and engaging. And communities are getting that message resoundingly from journalism, with 51.3 per cent of residents, at least in Canada, relying on traditional media for that critical coverage.

How can that degree of urgency be presented, let alone sustained, when the vivid picture drawn by concrete numbers for public health outcomes in this country related to the climate crisis barely even exist?

Just like those health agencies and government authorities, there are countless media organizations around the world with disparate practices, norms and standards for gathering and reporting information. Even with the best of intentions, and trying to act on currently available information, there are inherent challenges to communicating complex scientific and social issues. So it’s not surprising when we see some amount of public confusion or anxiety. 

The 2018 Lancet Countdown, which describes climate change as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century,”  points to the issue. 

In its first recommendation, authors urge policy-makers to:

Co-ordinate federal governmental departments, local governments and national institutions to standardize surveillance and reporting of heat-related illness and deaths; develop knowledge translation strategies to inform the public about the threats of heat waves to health; and generate a clinical and public health response plan that minimizes the health impacts of heat now and anticipates worsening impacts to come as climate change progresses.

There are suggestions about communicating messages about climate change using a health frame. ‘Framing’ is often used in a derogatory way in media studies, but there’s been growing recognition about how the news media can frame climate change in ways that provide greater nuance and context and help communicate the link between extreme weather events and climate change. We’ve seen beat reporters, outlets, and media partnerships dedicated to climate issues providing this kind of coverage.

But there’s also been an increased push for media to highlight direct health impacts — rather than purely economic ones — and the policy proposals that might address those issues. 

Despite the relative increase in climate-related journalism in recent years, the health frame — and the data that would underpin it — hasn’t entirely broken through.

As the COVID-19 crisis and the response to it unfolds, we watch how statistics convey risk and urgency to the public — and help news media to do the same.

COVID-19 and climate, beyond the data

But the complications don’t stop there, of course. How can news agencies negotiate these kinds of complex situations, and how can members of the public try to keep themselves as well-informed as possible? 

We’ve also seen many studies over the past few decades analyzing some of the problems with news coverage of climate change. There’s the age-old issue of false balance — giving equal weight to the data and research from climate scientists, and baseless or bad-faith claims made by climate deniers. There are also challenges in communicating what climate consensus ‘means.’ There are many examples of problematic news coverage and public misunderstandings about climate consensus. Some seem to doubt that there is a consensus. There’s also misrepresentation of that consensus as essentially ‘lots of scientists agree about this issue.’ 


Climate change skeptics and commentators often criticize various regulations and policy proposals on predictable grounds: scientists themselves admit there is uncertainty in the data, models can’t accurately predict the future, and the proposed actions would hurt the economy or take away jobs.


It’s important to make the distinction that ‘climate consensus’ isn’t just a survey or a petition that a bunch of scientists pass around. The scientific consensus on climate change refers to tens of thousands of studies in the fields of geology, atmospheric sciences, geophysics, oceanography, and many others, which makes up an enormous evidence base that supports the idea that climate change is happening, and it’s caused by human activity. These scientists work for a range of governmental and non-governmental agencies. The degree of scientific certainty around climate change is similar to the certainty around the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.

Meanwhile, the studies that ‘debunk’ or challenge climate change data quickly fall apart under close scrutiny, like this now-infamous 2003 paper. There were major issues with the methodology, and ongoing questions about the funding the authors received from the energy industry, and accusations that they were misleading or secretive about disclosing that funding.

We see problems with news coverage and misunderstandings of the basic processes and institutions of scientific work. Some commentators suggest that scientific consensus represents a kind of dogma that might be impossible for other scientists to resist. According to this line of argument, data that refutes anthropogenic climate change would be ignored or shunned by the broader community. But here’s the thing: novelty is favoured in the scientific community, to a problematic degree. Funding agencies, journals and news organizations are inherently more likely to give attention and resources to something that’s surprising and attention-grabbing.

Let’s say some climate scientists credibly ‘debunked’ anthropogenic climate change. By that I mean, they produced research that doesn’t quickly fall apart under scientific or ethical scrutiny. Those scientists might initially receive some pushback. Others would try to replicate the work. If the data held up, our understanding of climate change would shift accordingly.


What does this mean for a pandemic like COVID-19? Ideally, alongside the news updates, we should try to read articles and resources from credible sources that use framing to provide some of the larger context — perhaps exploring some of those underlying scientific and social challenges around the collection, sharing and communication of data. As researchers and public health officials have noted in the midst of this pandemic, data sharing and standardization across agencies is going to continue to be a central consideration for public health efforts and control strategies in Canada.

And we should try to understand that, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, during a disease outbreak or pandemic, some amount of uncertainty is unavoidable and difficult to deal with.

This does not discredit scientific or journalistic work, and it doesn’t mean that it’s all pointless. It means that we don’t always have the answers, especially with complex, evolving scientific issues. It means that good science — and good journalism — involves drawing on the data that’s available, and continually trying to improve our understanding of the world around us.

But the data has to be there to begin with.


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