BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — On Dec. 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its guide on therapies for COVID-19.
“Current evidence shows that convalescent plasma does not improve survival or reduce the need for mechanical ventilation, while it has significant costs,” reads a statement recommending refraining from transfusions of filtered plasma from the blood of people who have recovered from COVID-19.
This happened after months of countless bombastic headlines in the media, unfounded promises, and exaggerations, even spread by doctors and scientists without solid evidence of its effectiveness.
There is not a single country where this has not occurred. But, it happened especially in Latin America where, amid the confusion and uncertainty driven by the rampant advance of SARS-CoV-2 and the increase in the number of deaths, this experimental treatment was sold by governments, researchers and by certain media outlets starting in the first months of 2020 as the great hope to face a disconcerting disease.
"The pandemic made visible the risk of exaggerating the benefits of treatments that are still in development," says Argentine science journalist Valeria Román. “With the justification that there was a public health emergency and taking into account what the competition was doing, there were media outlets and journalists who inflated health interventions that did not yet have safety or efficacy evidence for COVID-19 such as convalescent plasma, hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, chlorine dioxide or inhaled ibuprofen”.
Both inside and outside of the journalistic world, this excessive promotion and inappropriate exaggerations of the importance or potential value of a particular study, treatment, drug or area of science has a specific name: ‘hype.’
It is a phenomenon characterized by an abuse of the hyperbolic discourse -with expressions such as "miracle," "cure," "breakthrough," "game changing," "paradigm shift," “wonder drug” – and the abundance of promises of a “revolution around the corner.”
A refuge of optimism in times of uncertainty
Hype, for example, has been a constant in the coverage of the Human Genome Project since the early 1990s and persists today with the CRISPR technique of gene editing that has awakened old and new dreams.
However, as in so many other areas, few of the great transformations promised have been delivered. And the hype continues, amplified by clickbait, the need to attract the attention of readers and politicians and in a new media ecosystem characterized by a 24-hour news cycle.
There is practically no scientific area that escapes these exaggerations and abuse of superlatives. They are found in media coverage and in research in artificial intelligence (AI), neuroscience, nanotechnology, quantum computing, cancer research, personalized medicine, stem cell therapies or space exploration, among many others.
Exaggerations aren't just common in newspaper articles. Rather, they are present throughout the scientific production chain: in research grants, in peer-reviewed publications, in institutional press releases, in politicians' speeches, and in the associated marketing of a new product (for example, a new drug).
Francis Collins, who was the director of the Human Genome Project, called the initiative “the most important organized scientific effort that humankind has ever attempted. It dwarfs going to the moon.”
As Canadian researcher Timothy Caulfield points out, the scientific hype is a complex phenomenon that involves many actors and has numerous sources: "It is, at least to some extent, the result of systemic pressures embedded in current incentives associated with biomedical research,” explains this specialist in legal, political and science ethics from the University of Alberta. “In a way, it can be argued that it is a natural part of the research process. Enthusiasm and optimistic predictions of applications in the near future are required to mobilize the scientific community and potential funders, both public and private. And, of course, the popular press is, at its core, an entertainment industry with the goal of making health and research stories engaging and readable."
The hype, in fact, is not new. There is evidence that the phenomenon has been intensifying and that it is having a more damaging impact than in the past. Recent studies show a rebound in the use of hyperbolic speech in recent decades. A 2015 paper found that many researchers are promoting their work more aggressively as funding dwindles and competition for grants and fame increases. Dutch psychiatrists Christiaan Vinkers, Joeri Tijdink and Willem Otte discovered that words such as “novel,” “innovative,” “amazing,” “unique” and “unprecedented” have become more frequent in the abstracts of biomedical articles published in the last 40 years. "Scientists assume that the results and their implications have to be exaggerated to be published," the authors note.
The COVID-19 pandemic fueled these exaggerations in Latin America.
"At a time of so much uncertainty and sadness over the thousands of deaths in the region, people want to find a refuge of optimism in certain announcements about possible cures and medical findings," says investigative journalist Nelly Luna Amancio from Peru. “But journalism, precisely, has a difficult but necessary job to do: put cold cloths on that enthusiasm. Good journalism must investigate what is behind and bring to reality the real impact of these alleged findings, often driven by interested parties, a pharmaceutical company, a research center, or even a government."
This is precisely what the American science journalist Brooke Borel remarked in an article published in The Guardian in 2015: “Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from. It is to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized.”
Fertile ground for distortions
Examples of hype in the region abound. In Argentina, the government, doctors, TV channels and news sites exaggerated the benefits of convalescent plasma and of a hyperimmune equine serum therapy for COVID-19 developed locally. In Colombia, Minister of Science Mabel Torres made an unsubstantiated promise to develop drugs from plants to treat COVID-19. The benefits of local mechanical ventilators were also exaggerated and even doctors assured that the coronavirus would soon "weaken."
"A lesson that the pandemic leaves behind is that the problem of exaggeration in the news is not limited to journalists even though we are the ones who magnify it," remarks Colombian science journalist Pablo Correa. "Pseudoscience and exaggeration also survive within the same medical communities and, in that sense, when the proclamation of the effectiveness of a treatment comes from someone with academic credentials, it is very easy for the media to replicate it without question. The case of convalescent plasma, local mechanical ventilators or herbal drugs to treat COVID-19 are recent examples of this phenomenon that does not begin or end in the error of journalists, but rather extends to less rigorous medical communities.”
Something similar happened in Peru, where unproven therapies to treat patients with COVID-19 such as ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and chlorine dioxide received great media attention, generally positive.
"There were renowned health professionals defending its use based on incomplete data or based on their experience using it for other diseases," says Bruno Ortiz, science and technology journalist for the newspaper El Comercio (Peru).
Science and health journalism is fertile ground for the proliferation of these exaggerated promises and distortions.
"One of the factors is the still limited training that media directors and editors have to identify if a potential treatment has true efficacy and safety and to evaluate the numbers related to benefits and risks," warns Román, journalist at Infobae, co-founder of the Argentine Network of Science Journalism and former vice president of the World Federation of Science Journalists.
Many media outlets inflate headlines and tweets in the constant search for clicks, with the desire to gain audiences.
"Every so often we hear a new 'cure for cancer' to verify in the text a few lines below that it is an experimental finding or that a medicine was tested in mice," indicates the Mexican science journalist Iván Carrillo. “The responsibility of journalists and editors is with the audience, but many times the desire for clicks wins. They seek to have a quantitative and not a qualitative impact without realizing that it is the second that will guarantee the attention of the audiences and, therefore, a sustainable business model.”
News media companies are also taking advantage of the desperation caused by the pandemic.
"People are still waiting for an extraordinary cure, the magic pill, the secret potion that will relieve us of our ills," says Ortiz. “Many media outlets are aware of this and prefer their own benefit rather than the collective benefit. That is why it is common to find that media organizations that cover health issues without having specialized journalists appeal to exaggeration to generate higher levels of audience. The effect of this behavior is to instill in people inaccurate, incomplete and sometimes even incorrect ideas on certain topics that, in the long run, lead to poor health decisions being made.”
Instead of investing in information quality, in-depth reports or hiring specialized journalists, in countries like Mexico most of the national media continue to bet on harvesting likes to attract advertisers and demonstrate the impact of their content.
"We know that fear and hope sell and even more in uncertain times," Carrillo adds. “Journalists and editors have a social responsibility, but there are no controls over their actions.”
The hype and other injections of hyperbole and bombastic promises of not-so-distant benefits are not innocuous. As promised forecasts are not met, these media distortions and bloated advertisements can erode public confidence and support for science. Or have a negative impact on the way people think scientific research is done or how infectious diseases like COVID-19 or HIV/ AIDS are dealt with.
For example, this is what has happened in Latin American countries with government announcements and newspaper articles with a chauvinist tone about national vaccines against the coronavirus that have come to nothing or their future is uncertain.
"In Peru, since the beginning of the pandemic, a supposed Peruvian nasal vaccine against COVID-19 was promoted, which turned out to be a fraud," recalls health journalist Fabiola Torres. “The researchers were interviewed on radio and television and they even established a date for the release of their vaccine to the market: July 2021. When we investigated the subject on our website Salud con Lupa, we verified that the Peruvian vaccine project had only completed tests on animals.”
Local vaccine projects such as the "ARVAC Cecilia Grierson" vaccine (Argentina) and the "Patria" vaccine (Mexico) also led to bombastic headlines in the media and especially from the institutions that promote them and who appealed in their institutional articles to words and phrases full of nationalism like "pride" and "sovereignty."
The phenomenon is amplified by the habit of many journalists to copy-paste press releases, which in many cases responds to the lack of journalists specialized in science and health in the newsrooms.
"Being unprepared, many media depend almost exclusively on press releases and some scientists," warns Argentine science journalist Andrea Gentil. “Added to this are certain 'habits and customs' of journalism, such as the one that affirms that the news that makes an impact are those that attract attention. In addition, non-specialized editors and writers do not have the necessary background to warn how exaggeration can be detrimental to audiences by generating expectations that are totally lacking in scientific basis."
The exaggerations are also typical of what is known as "cheerleading science journalism" that blindly celebrates any finding or paper. Especially if it is from scientists from the same country.
"I have the impression that certain journalists do not have the same critical gaze that one has when the government announces something, as when the announcement is made, for example, by a Big Pharma," says Luna, co-founder of the news site Ojo Público. “To the latter, many media tend to believe everything and reproduce exactly what is said in the press release they send, without analyzing the obvious economic interests behind these supposed 'new findings.' The discussion around the advancement and development of vaccines against COVID-19, of medicines and treatments against this disease, for example, show how these companies have promoted information strategies to extend and amplify their findings to the media and that these be replicated without necessarily being contrasted. It is likely that this type of lax coverage is also one of the causes of the tremendous distrust that people feel towards the media in general."
The detrimental effects of hype
Hype can have more dire consequences.
"For example, the confusion of the audiences, which ends up being fertile ground for misinformation and mistrust of some in science," says Costa Rican science journalist Debbie Ponchner.
It can also create misunderstandings among readers, unrealistic expectations of the benefit of experimental drugs and treatments for patients, misinform and accelerate the marketing and use of unproven therapies.
"The problem is that these distortions generate anxiety in the audiences, especially in people with COVID-19 or in their relatives," says Román, who published an article that took her five months of research to explain what considerations should be taken into account when a doctor offers an unproven drug or treatment.
To avoid incurring false hopes, it is essential that the media hire specialized journalists.
"Professionals with an adequate dose of skepticism and another of knowledge about the form of validation of scientific knowledge," says Correa.
Another important piece of advice is to put the information in context.
"Always present the big picture," says Ponchner, former editor of Scientific American En Español. “Show the available scientific evidence and be clear with the reader whether these are findings made in a preclinical or clinical study. It is important to present the findings as an evolving process, so that it is always clear what is yet to be determined, what are the next steps in this line of research, what can go well and what can go wrong."
It is also about explaining the announcements and putting them in their true dimension.
"This has been one of the most difficult tasks in these two years of the pandemic," says Luna. "Not only because we had to face disinformation and denialism, but also because many large media such as television have given space to misinformers and exaggerated these announcements of new treatments or findings in an effort to gain clicks and ratings."
It is also recommended to avoid the use of certain words: "'Promising,' 'revolutionary,' 'the solution,’ 'the find of the century,' these are concepts that should never be included in an article on health or science," says Gentil. "Because science itself is marked by uncertainty. This does not imply that journalists and editors cannot emphasize the importance of a certain study or of a certain achievement, but always keeping prudence. What today may seem 'wonderful' at first glance in months or years can turn into a dead end, a hypothesis that could not be verified or even a publication that was tainted by fraudulent practices or even methodological errors.”
To reduce the risk of exaggeration, it is particularly necessary to refer to the available evidence.
"We must investigate whether each intervention has a solid paper to support it," recommends Román, and consider how large the sample of a study is.
And also always have a critical look. As Carrillo points out: “Journalists must question the origin of the funds for the investigation and look for scientific sources outside the laboratory to verify the reliability of the investigations.”
As journalists, the greatest commitment is always with the readers, with the audiences. Especially when it comes to delicate and sensitive issues such as health.
About this briefing
This story is part of a series of briefings written by science/health journalists who have offered best practices and insights on covering COVID-19. These briefings are being published as part of a Knight Center initiative sponsored by UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization. To read more about the briefings, click here. Additionally, access the briefings in multiple languages here:
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