What journalists can learn from their mistakes during the pandemic

Getting COVID-19 coverage right required a diverse newsroom and journalists with data skills and expertise, argues Dorothy Byrne

A journalist wearing a face mask is seen outside of the St Thomas' Hospital after Boris Johnson was moved to intensive care in April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

17th June 2020

This piece is the transcript of the opening remarks Dorothy Byrne gave during a recent seminar hosted by the Reuters Institute and chaired by Meera Selva. Her remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and length. You can watch the seminar in this link

UK journalists have embarked on a major critique of the performance of politicians and scientists in this pandemic. And rightly so. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost, our economy has slumped, and there are fears that the future of a whole generation has been blighted. But it’s only fair that we should also start to critique ourselves. How have we performed in our coverage of COVID-19? Where did we get it right and where did we make some of the same mistakes of which we accuse politicians and scientists?

This seminar is based on my professional opinion and experience in covering the pandemic, on off-the-record conversations with some of broadcasting’s most senior political and specialist journalists, on discussions with journalists on specialist publications and on some discussion with the scientists we have relied on and used. 

As editor-at-large at Channel Four, I am particularly interested in public service broadcasters. I’ve anonymised almost all my interviews because I wanted journalists to be honest about where they found covering this story difficult. And those I spoke to admitted they had wrestled at times with how to do their jobs. That is only to be expected: this pandemic is without precedent. Some of what they told me is important in informing our journalism going forward.

“Science is about uncertainty”

Here are some of my questions. Did we journalists give sufficient coverage to COVID-19 in February following the January 30 World Health Organisation announcement of a pandemic? Richard Horton of The Lancet is sure we did not and a senior television editor told me he had looked back at his programme’s coverage during February and in hindsight wondered why, on some days, the coming pandemic was not even in the headlines. Another senior editor said, ‘To be honest, I don’t think it was taken seriously until Lombardy, everyone’s favourite middle class destination’. A specialist journalist admitted they hadn’t believed the dire warnings.

How did we handle the completely new experience for journalists in a democracy of our primary task being to inform the public of a government message in a national emergency in order to save lives? As one editor put it, ‘ Democracy shut down’. We were keen to pass on the government’s potentially life-saving message. But did the political journalists leading coverage have sufficient scientific knowledge and understanding to interpret that message? Some have told me that, looking back, they realise they should have asked more questions about the much-repeated statement that politicians were following ‘the science’. 

As Horton put it, ‘I would have asked which scientists.’ 

A specialist journalist told me, ‘Science isn’t one thing. Science is about uncertainty and reducing uncertainty. People expected science to know what it doesn’t know.’ A programme editor confirmed that view, ‘They were trying to put a certainty where it didn’t exist.’  Another said, ‘ Science doesn’t give you actionable policy’.  And one of the leading experts sought by all in this pandemic told me, ‘ There is no such thing as a single opinion. Everyone is learning. ’ 

Too many PPEs, too few PPEs

So how did we cope with this story, when at its heart was complex science and, like the politicians, most of us have an arts and politics education? Angela Merkel was a brilliant student of mathematics. Her doctorate  was in quantum chemistry. How many of us even know what that is? In this pandemic, she read key science papers herself. Boris Johnson has a degree in classics. He told the Commons Liaison Committee he had not actually read the scientific papers. He has since said he has read scientific papers.

Almost none of our leading politicians has a scientific background. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has a degree in Politics Philosophy and Economics (PPE) from Oxford. Rishi Sunak is another Oxford PPE bloke. Guess what Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds studied? PPE at Oxford. And shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth studied Politics and Philosophy. The Ps without the E. On the Labour side, Keir Starmer’s degree is in Law. 

What about the key advisors? Dominic Cummings studied Ancient and Modern History. Handy in a 2020 pandemic. Baroness Dido Harding, put in charge of Track and Trace studied,  studied –guess what– PPE at Oxford. There was a huge shortage of PPE equipment in hospitals and care homes in this crisis but no shortage of PPEs among those dealing with the crisis. 

Which PPE would our health and care workers rather have had? But hang on, Robert Peston also studied PPE at Oxford. He likes a long question at a press conference, but he is also the recipient of one of pandemic’s cringe-making moments when he asked a very long question about testing and Professor Jonathan Van Tam replied, ‘I’m afraid, sir, you are very wrong.’ Laura Kuenssberg and Gary Gibbon studied History. 

The academic backgrounds of political journalists are uncannily similar to those of politicians.

Let’s be frank, in a medical emergency you wouldn’t call on a single one of them. However, when I talked to specialist journalists, and scientists, they said they thought that political journalists got up to speed remarkably well in the circumstances. Global health expert Dr Michael Head told me, ‘There was an anxiety to get the story right. Journalists were very conscious of their public service role.’

Data literacy matters

It was not just our profession’s lack of scientific knowledge which hampered us. We often didn’t understand data. Experts complain our profession regularly ‘mixed up the denominator’. If you don’t understand what they mean, maybe you are part of that problem. Experts said that 30% of people with COVID-19 may test negative. That was reported wrongly as 30% of negative tests being wrong. The risk of dying of COVID-19 was also confused. One way of looking at the problem is to ask what your chance of dying is. The other is to ask what your chance of getting it and then dying is. Two quite different things and they were sometimes confused.

The conduct of the daily press conferences is an issue which everyone raised. On the one hand, journalists were relieved that politicians were putting themselves up to lengthy scrutiny daily after a long period before the pandemic during which many leading politicians refused to do anything but short interviews or photo opportunities. 

There is a widespread view that broadcasters sometimes sent the wrong journalists to press conferences. The heavyweight political editors pushed out the less well-known health stalwarts. One health specialist said, ‘ If you are a health specialist there are not normally many people splashing in your paddling pool. All of a sudden health is the only game in town.’ One scientist said to me that ‘flashy’ political correspondents understood very little about the scientific facts on days when the key points were about detailed scientific and data issues. So key questions were not asked. Specialist correspondents were passed over for attendance in favour of well-known political editors who didn’t have the in-depth knowledge needed.

“This isn’t a story for going solo”

The story of COVID-19 is a health story, a science story, a data story and a political story. I think there is a good case made that science and health correspondents should have been sent to press conferences more often and political editors less. We have rarely seen the BBC science editor at one of these conferences. One senior programme editor said to me, ‘ This was a science story so why was it being covered by political journalists with their long-winded pointless questions who seemed interested only in getting something for the next bulletin?’ 

A specialist TV journalist told me, ‘It’s brilliant when the specialists are asking the questions at the press conference. But if the Prime Minister is up, the newsdesk doesn’t want the science person doing it.’ Specialist correspondents said they understood that political editors were the stars but one said the big names were sometimes ‘bamboozled’ –as he put it– because of their lack of scientific understanding when a politician was dodging a hard question.

This view was widespread among those I talked to. A specialist journalist who didn’t attend the press conferences told me, ‘Watching the press conferences, I would think, ‘Those are not the questions I would ask.’’ 

I don’t think I am just being partial when I say that what I liked about Channel Four News’ coverage was that increasing weight was given to the health editor Victoria Macdonald. Her relationship with the political editor Gary Gibbon felt much more like a partnership and ultimately that is what was needed. Horton told me that he felt greater partnership was essential between the specialists and the political journalists. As another journalist put it, ‘This isn’t a story for going solo.’

We also don’t have nearly enough journalists who are really confident with data. A point I believe that Dominic Cummings has made. Tim Harford’s brilliant Radio 4 programme More or Less show has been a shining jewel in this crisis. 

White men everywhere

The Science Media Centre did excellent work organising detailed background briefings and encouraging scientists to speak on television. I truly admire their work. But it was really depressing to see that nearly all of the experts at Downing Street briefings and in general were white men. 

TV needs to improve its diversity, but whichever institutions control who rises up in the science and public health spheres should be utterly ashamed of themselves. The government must be embarrassed and should demand a detailed programme of action which should be made public. 

When you think that we discovered people from BAME backgrounds in our health services were at so much greater risk and when you saw all those white blokes standing next to the politicians, you felt you didn’t need to be a detective inspector to know you were onto something. In lockdown, some of my liberal friends have been embarrassed to admit they just wanted to leave reality and that they started watching Midsomer Murders. They apologised and said they knew it was a completely unrepresentative depiction of UK society. OK, in Midsomer Murders, virtually everyone is white. But at least women are a major feature. Midsomer Murders is in fact more representative of modern Britain than have been the briefings and appearances of experts on TV.  

The role of public service

I was Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel Four when the extent of the threat to health became absolutely clear. That was a very difficult time. As Michael Jermey, head of ITV News says,’ There was a time in March when we all wondered if we would stay on air.’ The public was desperate for information. In the early days, our Channel Four news figures often doubled and some nights the percentage of young viewers was up 70 percent. Other broadcasters saw similar increases.

At Channel Four, we are known for our investigations, but in the early days the priority was trying to relay information with clarity and in as much detail as possible. We extended our news programmes by an hour on several nights. Once lockdown was ordered, the need for practical information was paramount and we commissioned a large number of very fast turnaround programmes – Can Our Supermarkets Cope?  What’s It Like to Catch Coronavirus? How to clean your house

The channel launched a Stayathome campaign. This was an extraordinary moment as the channel was aligning 100% with a government message. One cannot understate how unusual that is. The channel commissioned a raft of other programmes encouraging people to stay at home –Jamie Oliver cooking in lockdown, Kirstie Allsop crafting, Grayson Perry helping the nation create art at home. As a public service broadcaster, we threw our weight behind the government’s campaign to keep the nation indoors. 

Levels of public trust in our COVID-19 coverage –high in normal times– rose to 83% according to the regulator Ofcom. It was the same for BBC and ITV, with Sky just slightly behind. Prior to this pandemic, some had said that mainstream broadcasters were no longer relevant, politicians didn’t need to appear on them and the BBC could even be forced to become a subscription service. In this emergency, we were vital. Without highly trusted and regulated public service television broadcasters, it is hard to see that the UK would have had such overwhelming support for lockdown. Of course, if one day it turns out we didn’t need lockdown, we will all have eggs on our faces.

How did we cope when we started to realise that there were serious problems emerging across the country with PPE and in care homes resulting in many deaths about which we were not being informed through official channels?  Our responsibility was greater because the Labour Party was not a significant public presence in the first weeks of the crisis. As the gravity of the problems became clear, some television journalists felt they were in a difficult position.

One editor told me, ‘Some felt we all had to be part of the public health messaging and that is part of the role but they have never recovered their footing. ‘Another said, ‘The difficulty is that lives are being lost. It puts pressure on journalists to communicate a public message to the country so you’re slow to move into full accountability.’ But another felt more confident and said, ‘ We aimed to get a balance between conveying public health messages and interrogating government policy.’ 

Bringing about change

Journalists are rightly proud that it was they who exposed what was really going on in hospitals and care homes up and down the country, thereby helping to bring about a change in practice and policy. ITV Head of News Michael Jermey told me, ‘The process of holding the government to account quite rapidly changed policy.’ 

It was here that health correspondents and editors came into their own. A political editor was honest with me about how handy his contact book of political figures was in a pandemic. He said, ‘ The contacts you know are of no use to you in this story.’ In contrast most health specialists had years of experience and contacts and now they used them to great effect. They worked day after day with health and care professionals to reveal the truth. 

As journalists, we should pay tribute to the people who put their careers on the line to reveal what was happening. Remember that threats were made that anyone talking to journalists would face disciplinary action. And social media proved vital. As one health editor told me, ‘The health service is full of people who wouldn’t normally talk, especially about something like PPE. But we could contact these people on social media; the porters and nursing assistants; people way down the food chain who work for private companies who would never normally talk. Their fear of the virus overtook their fear of job loss’. 

Part of the way in which health specialists have come into their own has been the important role played by the Health Service Journal. It’s worth stepping aside for a moment to examine a very different model of reporting. HSJ is required reading for anyone interested in the non-clinical side of the NHS and has about 30,000 readers across government, the NHS, pharmaceutical companies and those supplying technology and expertise to the NHS. But when this pandemic began, they took down their paywall so anyone could read it and I really recommend it. 

The magazine has a dozen experts, including a patient safety correspondent and two technology correspondents. Each journalist also takes responsibility for a different part of the country. Editor Alastair McLellan is rightly proud of the role they played in breaking stories –including revelations about problems with the app and testing. ‘We had the expertise and the resource,’ he says. The HSJ’s journalists briefed the lobby at key moments in the story. What’s really interesting about their model is that they have a dozen-strong research team in India which has been analysing data throughout. The results of that work are yet to come. I am sure they will be of great importance.

The way forward 

So what can we learn for how we should conduct our journalism going forward? Of course, we need more science graduates in journalism. The television industry must work with universities in imaginative ways to encourage top science graduates to enter our world. But everyone should maybe do a half day training in some basic concepts about science.

Journalists need to learn they can’t always have a definitive answer to a question. As one expert told me, ‘Everyone in SAGE is disagreeing and cautious and disputing.’ Journalists have got to learn to cope with the concept of uncertainty. This error was made in the terrible reporting of MMR when some journalists totally misunderstood the significance of scientists saying nothing is risk-free. COVID-19 was a new virus and we were asking experts to give firm views when the experts themselves were learning every day.’ As Alastair McLellan put it, ‘We are all on a learning curve, even the expert journalists and the very best scientists in the world.’

However, some of the errors made were caused by lack of understanding of basic statistics. Should every broadcaster run a course for its journalists in statistics? I think so. In my career, I have often been astounded by basic errors made in reporting something as obvious as percentages in a survey. As one of the experts I consulted said, you don’t need a degree in statistics, ’ You need a critical mind.’

COVID-19 has meant politicians, scientists, other experts and journalists have, each in their own way, had to go on a massive learning journey and we have inevitably all made mistakes. One of the leading experts I talked to, quoted everywhere, told me, ‘Everyone is learning.’ Alastair McLellan backs that up, ‘ We are all becoming more informed about the true nature of science. Scientists work in a complicated and nuanced world. Science doesn’t tell you what to do. It is not a set of instructions.’

But it’s not journalists or scientists or other experts who run this country; it’s politicians. We shouldn’t judge them unfairly. We should take into account that they were guided by advice which might have been flawed. Sadly, key decision-makers didn’t have the sort of background Angela Merkel had which might have helped them to question that advice better. 

A couple of weeks ago, Channel Four Dispatches broadcast the first major television investigation into the government’s handling of COVID-19. Its findings were disturbing. It was also disappointing that no government spokesperson would appear in it. There has been some brilliant investigation across the media in this crisis –literally life-saving. It is the duty of television to continue to investigate because so many lives have been lost and so many jobs have and will be lost. We must do this fairly, aware that this pandemic is an event without precedent in our lifetimes, so we can’t expect policy to be perfectly right all the time. But we must not be afraid to investigate so that the suffering of all and the deaths of so many were not utterly wasted.