AAAS Kavli Lecture: NPR's Joe Palca on Coping With COVID Misinformation

Michaela Jarvis

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca offered ideas for how to combat myths and misinformation in the age of COVID in a Nov. 3 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award Lecture but not before explaining his views on how the nature of science and of journalism itself can inadvertently feed false narratives.

“We in journalism are a little bit stuck,” Palca said during the online event, which was hosted by the Master’s in Journalism program at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies and Georgetown’s undergraduate journalism program. “It’s not our job to convince people that the coronavirus is real," Palca said. "It’s our job to report on, as accurately as we can, what public health officials and scientists are seeing about the coronavirus and the havoc it can cause. And if you’re going to say 'I don’t believe you,' well, I could talk louder, but that’s not going to help.”

Back in his days as a student, Palca’s focus was not journalism. It was science. Before earning a PhD in psychology, he worked as a lab technician at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California. He learned firsthand that scientific research is slow and painstaking  “and how dedicated, honestly, the people are who do it on the front lines.”

Science usually progresses in very small increments, Palca said, and what is known to be true about a certain scientific topic can suddenly change, resulting in news that is confusing or contradictory.

Joe Palca

He gave the example of Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explaining at the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 that asymptomatic transmission had never been the main force behind illness outbreaks of respiratory-borne viruses.

“He didn’t say this virus can’t be transmitted asymptomatically," Palca said. "He said in the entire history of infectious diseases this hasn’t happened. So strictly speaking, I would say he’s off the hook. But in terms of what anybody who listened to this heard, it would have been, ‘There’s no way that this virus can be transmitted asymptomatically because that just doesn’t happen.’”

Palca said he is “totally comfortable” that Fauci, with decades of experience in infectious diseases, speculated about how COVID would spread — despite having no guarantee of being correct. “Yet I’ve been to enough Congressional hearings,” he said, where a member of Congress "eager to make a name for himself or herself quotes that back to [Fauci] and says, ‘How can you say once upon a time you were saying this and now you’re saying the other, and why should we believe you?’ “ That is partly why some people get confused about myths and misinformation, Palca said.

Journalists, like scientists, also get it wrong sometimes. Palca said that when he did a piece in June 2020 on Emergent BioSolutions’ manufacturing of vaccines, he asked company officials if they were confident they could produce the hundreds of millions of doses that would be needed, and they insisted that they were. Palca included the recording of their response in the segment that aired. “After [their] saying yes, yes, it would have better for me to say, ‘Maybe and maybe not. Only time will tell,’” Palca said. Becuse of contamination and other production issues, Emergent BioSolutions ended up discarding millions of vaccine doses and came nowhere near their initial production predictions. The company's vaccine manufacturing deal with the federal government has just been terminated.

At the same time, Palca said, journalists have been providing crucial and much-awaited information about COVID-19 and related topics, often from press releases and without the usual vetting. “We would cover an announcement from Pfizer about the results from their trial or an announcement from Moderna as if every word in the press release was the god’s honest truth,” Palca said, adding that the two companies’ results were ultimately verified. “Under normal circumstances, we would never have done that, but we didn’t have a choice.”

Such unvetted information is generally broadcast or published with caveats, but Palca pointed out that those qualifications often go unnoticed. “If people only listen to the first sentence of two of what I wrote … they’re going to miss the caveat,” Palca said, pointing out that starting a segment with the caveats would be the equivalent of telling people the information they are about to hear is not important.

Carole Feldman

Carole Feldman, Georgetown University’s faculty director of journalism and one of the event's moderators, asked Palca about using more fact-checking to clear up misinformation. Palca said he doesn’t think journalism has “a special tool that’s been neglected or can be pulled out that’s going to solve the problem” and sway an audience that is skeptical of the media.

He recommended “a different way of attacking the problem,” mentioning the Boston University Scicommers, a community of scientists, students and educators who want to be better science communicators. Other organizations, such as AAAS, also have programs to help scientists communicate better. Palca helped start the Boston group, once known as the NPR Scicommers, as an outgrowth of his “Joe’s Big Idea” series, which explores the minds of scientists and inventors.  He would like to see the group expand.

“I feel it has to be a lot of people, especially scientists who have friends and relatives and colleagues who trust them, for good reasons but mostly because they know them and feel part of their group, which is what makes you believe people,” Palca said. “I think they have a better chance of convincing people of the accurate information or at least convincing people who are unconvinced by the media.”

Doyle McManus

Moderator Doyle McManus, director of journalism at Georgetown College, brought up surveys done by the Kaiser Family Foundation that teased out important information about vaccine hesitancy. He asked Palca whether he thought news organizations should be doing more polling of the public to better understand and combat misinformation. News organizations have little incentive to mine the views of people who don’t believe legitimate news, Palca argued, because those people are not the audience upon which the organizations’ advertising or brand depends. Philanthropies like the Kaiser Family Foundation, he said, might provide crucial assistance.

“I’m more and more convinced that the future of journalism does lie in philanthropies like Kaiser,” Palca said, “who don’t have to sell to advertisers or promote particular points of view but can just say, ‘I’m here for the health of America. How can we improve that?’”