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The Quest for Truth

The Burden of Discerning the Facts During the Most Serious Public Health Crisis in Modern History
By Jenifer Slaw — Senior Vice President, Media Relations

It’s now a year since the novel coronavirus first arrived in the United States. As we look back at 2020 and move further into 2021, we ask the question of whether the media has done its job getting accurate information to the American public during the worst public health crisis in modern history. As communications professionals, perhaps the more important question we need to ask ourselves is: did we do our job to be a resource they can trust or did we just add to the noise, creating potential more confusion and even distrust?

The only beat in 2020 was healthcare.

Mainstream media in the U.S. completely turned on its axis in February 2020. Regardless of their beat, every reporter essentially became a healthcare journalist. National and local reporters were assigned coronavirus stories without any foundational knowledge of science, medical information or how the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry operated. Not to mention, this was a novel virus and even trusted sources didn’t have all of the answers. However, there was really no room for error if you wanted to build trust. It was incumbent upon the press to get it right. The media were almost becoming a public health agency in their own right.

Journalists for the most part understood the weight of this responsibility. We saw some of them leaning on biotech and health trades to get up to speed fast. However, the sheer volume of information put news directors and editors in the position of having to choose speed over accuracy. The pressure to break COVID-19 related news first also at times sacrificed in-depth coverage that would have clarified a lot of misconceptions. Additionally, many news outlets found themselves relying on the same sources over and over again simply because there wasn’t time to explore other expert opinions. There were so many gaps in knowledge. While it is the job of the press and their expert sources to talk about what they know, rarely do they openly say what they don’t know simply due to the dynamic of reporting the facts as they are in the moment.

This brings us to the issue of trust.

Trust is critical when you’re communicating medical information. It has been argued and data shows that Americans started losing trust in the media before the pandemic even started. News has been highly editorialized and politically charged. Growing consumption of opinion-based journalism and increased reliance on social media for facts has led to increased confusion and distrust.

Americans craved reassurance and guidance from outlets they could trust during this difficult time which required consistent and accurate communication. There was a lot of “noise” which became confusing to the American public. As information about coronavirus evolved, many articles written earlier in the year were proven to be inaccurate. We forgive the press for this as the global community kept learning about this virus on the fly and information was constantly evolving. The volume of breaking news was relentless in 2020 and newsrooms were so overwhelmed that it became difficult to properly vet new sources and question existing ones. Additionally, we still wonder if the news media was going deep enough. Were reporters not asking the right questions or in some instances could it also be they just didn’t know the questions to ask?

Moving forward and focusing on facts.

Facts are critical when disseminating scientific information but what do you do in an America where everyone is questioning what the truth even is? As healthcare communications professionals, we also have to question the impact of politicizing medical information and how we navigate this landscape with a new President and a new Congress in 2021.

The good news is America has a growing appetite to now understand science which presents a golden opportunity for the healthcare industry. As a result of the speed of getting the coronavirus vaccine to market, people are going to start asking more questions about why cancer hasn’t been cured or why Parkinson’s research hasn’t progressed. COVID-19 has lit a spark for the exploration of science. Medical advances like the mRNA vaccines have a good shot at leading major medical breakthroughs in other disease categories.

As healthcare communications professionals, we look forward to witnessing the new wave of innovation in biotechnology and paving the way for telling powerful stories in the next era of modern medicine. To do that successfully, we as healthcare PR pros have to acknowledge the fragility of trust and take on the same burden of responsibility as the news media to get it right when communicating scientific information at a time when American lives depend on it.