Journalistic Objectivity and the Origins of COVID-19: A Dispatch from the Front Lines
Who would have thought writing about science could be so intense and disorienting—with taxing effects on my already rather fragile state of mind?
In January 2020, when I stumbled upon research carried out in the lab of Shi Zhengli at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—known as China’s ‘bat woman’ because her work in the past 18 years has focused on bat-borne coronaviruses—I didn’t realize I was stepping into a scientific minefield that would become a fierce battleground for numerous hot-button issues, ranging from biosafety concerns of virus research, transparency and accountability of international science, to geopolitical wrangling between China and the United States.
Particularly alarming—and somewhat comical—is the way the Chinese and U.S. officials engaged in a disinformation shouting match from the beginning of the pandemic. Weeks after the news broke about a deadly new coronavirus in Wuhan, Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, claimed that it was engineered by the Wuhan lab and then escaped. In response, China’s foreign ministry insinuated that the virus was leaked from a military research lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
For nearly three years, I have been consumed—both physically and psychologically—by the extremely challenging task of investigating different lines of evidence about COVID-19’s origins and examining the plausibility that the pandemic might have been caused by research-associated activities at the Wuhan lab. Most extraordinarily, it was the first time in my 16 years of writing about Chinese science from within China that I wondered whether, as a Chinese journalist, I ought to be covering a controversy with such a strong element of geopolitical tension between China and the United States.
“Could I be objective?” I wondered. “Does being Chinese present a conflict of interest for the story?”
An unattainable ideal?
Objectivity refers to a person’s judgement not being influenced by personal feelings or opinions when considering and representing facts. While it has long been regarded as one of the sacred tenets of journalism, our relationship with it is a tortured one. Different reporters have different ideas about what journalistic objectivity actually means, or whether it’s a realistic ideal in an increasingly polarized world.
It would, of course, be delusional to think newsrooms operate in a value-free vacuum. We are biased about the types of stories we cover and how. We are biased about the choice of sources, often preferring people who are articulate and can give us great quotes. We are biased toward sticking with the pack and existing narratives because that’s safe and easy. In foreign correspondence in developing countries, there is often a bias toward people who speak good English or have a good idea of how the Western media operate.
As the controversy of COVID-19’s origins was sweeping across the world, a debate about journalistic objectivity reignited. In June 2020, Wesley Lowery, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, wrote an opinion article in the New York Times cautioning against an illusion of fairness resulting from he-said/she-said reporting. He called for abandoning “the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard”—a position informed by his observation that most American media organizations have repeatedly failed to accurately cover black communities due to their mostly white perspectives. It might be more honest and realistic, he added, for journalists to devote themselves to accuracy and “to focus on being fair and telling the truth as best as one can.” Lowery drove home pressing questions about the role of power dynamics in journalism: Who decides what is considered to be objective truth? Is objective truth nothing but an illusion when what considers to be objective depends on subjective perspectives? His call for a drastic paradigm shift in journalism, essentially by scrapping objectivity, raised eyebrows.
A few weeks later, at the 21st International Symposium on Online Journalism, Tom Rosenstiel—a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and former media critic for the Los Angeles Times—said that one mustn’t conflate the notion of objectivity with the sort of he-said/she-said neutrality. Journalistic objectivity, says Rosenstiel, is a method of understanding. It does not deny our subjective perspectives and personal biases—which are inherent to being human—or that our initial view is the starting point of any journalistic endeavor. By contrast, he says, the objective method recognizes, acknowledges and critically examines our biases, both individual and institutional. It requires us to fulfill our moral obligation by going out of our way to try to understand “the other”—a central challenge of American journalism—and present their plights and perspectives with the necessary social, cultural, and political context.
It’s a rigorous process that enables us to step out of our intellectual comfort zone and transcend subjective biases about sources, arguments, or causes. It’s the only way to prevent journalism from descending into a sorrowful state in which it does little more than reinforce stereotypes, confirm preconceived ideas, and rehash existing narratives. This is the essence of our ideal of journalistic objectivity. Thus, the failing of many predominantly white newsrooms in covering racism attests to their failure to properly apply the objective method of understanding by keeping their own biases in check and by reaching out for diverse perspectives—rather than to the notion that journalistic objectivity is unattainable.
Rosenstiel cautioned that reducing journalism to mere accuracy would jeopardize the ultimate goal of getting as close as possible to the truth through an objective method of understanding. Being accurate is far from enough. As most journalists are aware, we can get all the facts correct but the story wrong. Meanwhile, he adds, taking refuge in subjectivity could also blur the line between journalism (which aims to inform) and advocacy and propaganda (which strive to persuade).
Everybody is biased
How is the debate on objectivity and neutrality relevant to the coverage of scientific controversies such as COVID-19’s origins?
The controversy over COVID-19’s origins involves two fiercely competing theories: the natural origins theory posits that the pandemic was most likely a result of a virus jumping from an animal to a human, a process known as zoonotic spillover; the lab leak theory argues that it’s plausible COVID-19 emerged from research-associated activities, such as taking samples from bats in the wild and genetic tinkering of coronaviruses in the lab.
It’s a battle of the narratives. The toxicity and polarization of the debate are shocking and disconcerting. Emotions run high. Insults are traded on Twitter. Scientists and journalists leaning towards different theories often accuse one another of perpetuating biases, confusing evidence with speculation, and subpar professional standards. Where does the truth lie?
One of the first things I noticed about the controversy was that everybody was biased, and people’s assessment of scientific evidence was often colored by non-scientific factors and ulterior motives.
Virologists, for instance, have a stake in their research and reputation. Some biosafety experts have long had grievances about the way virus research is regulated globally and, therefore, the controversy is an opportunity for them to grind their axes. Some politicians use the controversy to advance their political agenda. People, including political commentators, who have grievances against China might want to believe the pandemic was caused by an accident in a Chinese laboratory. Those who have an anti-establishment tendency and don’t trust scientific institutions are basically predisposed to the lab leak theory. Journalists and editors come with their own biases as well. It would be impossible for those of us from either China or the U.S. to be free of our personal sentiment when reporting a story with a strong element of China-U.S. tension.
Having biases is part of being human. The biases that end up compromising journalism standards are those that are unrecognized, unacknowledged, and unexamined. An objective method of understanding is the only way to counter the impact of those biases. It allows us to critically examine competing evidence, claims and hypotheses regardless of our personal leaning. It means that we should embrace points of view as long as the arguments are sound and backed up with evidence even if they might deviate from our initial assessment. It means that we should ask sources tough questions and challenge their assumptions even if we might incline to agree with them. Some of the most notorious coverage of the controversy has resulted from a lack of such rigor and fair-mindedness.
In May 2021, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—produced by an American nonprofit whose remit is to raise concerns of global security issues resulting from technological advancement—republished a blog by science writer Nicholas Wade claiming that the lab leak theory better explained existing scientific evidence. Numerous virologists and infectious-diseases experts are dismayed at the way the former New York Times reporter vastly cherrypicked claims to fit his narrative without critically examining the underlying evidence.
The article, for instance, included a sensational quote from David Baltimore—an expert on viruses that can cause cancer for which he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1975—saying that a seemingly peculiar genetic feature of SARS-CoV-2, known as the furin cleavage site, was “the smoking gun” that makes “a powerful challenge” to the natural-origins theory. This, as Wade insinuated, is evidence that the virus was engineered in the Wuhan lab. Baltimore, however, was wrong. Many contagious pathogens—including some coronaviruses and influenza viruses—have naturally evolved this type of genetic feature because it gives them an evolutionary advantage by making them more infectious. The episode offers a good example of how journalism can go wrong—when journalists do not critically evaluate what’s said but pay more attention to who said it.
Follow the evidence
Vetting competing evidence, claims and hypotheses of a scientific controversy—without falling into the trap of he-said/she-said reporting—is no mean feat. Critical thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism are crucial. So is the journalistic mantra “Trust nobody. Question everything.”
It’s also important to bear in mind the limitations of the scientific process. Science is a social institution subject to all sorts of flaws of human nature. Scientists, like everybody else, have their biases, agendas and conflicts of interest. Therefore, science can never be as infallible and impartial as we would like to think it can be. The extreme toxicity of a controversy, such as COVID-19’s origins, also has an exacerbating effect—further compounding people’s biases, affecting their judgement, and distorting their perspectives.
When everybody can have biases, on what basis should we vet competing theories? The key is to keep attuned to those biases and never take anything—from, for instance, interviews, scientific reports, white papers, and media articles—at face value. Science journalism is not about scientists telling us their conclusions and we regurgitating them. We should vet any claims by critically examining the underlying evidence, rationale and counter-arguments. This means that we often need to scrutinize the original scientific materials and the uncertainties and how the caveats of methodologies, especially their assumptions, might affect the conclusions.
In other words, it’s critically important to understand not only what scientists conclude but how they come to their conclusions. It’d be impossible to assess the merits of competing claims without an in-depth knowledge of the process and methodologies that underlie those claims
Such evidence-based vetting of competing claims could also help avoid false equivalence—a common mistake in journalism that presents two sides of a debate as equally valid even though overwhelming evidence supports only one of them. But this is not to say that neutrality doesn’t have a place in science journalism. If there isn’t enough evidence to support either side of a controversy, then neutrality is justified and it’s important to convey to our readers that scientists still don’t have all the answers and a consensus is yet to be formed. But that’s a conclusion we can come to only after having critically examined the evidence.
In my recent article on the lab leak theory published in MIT Technology Review, I devoted large sections to address how biases and mistrust had affected the trajectory of the controversy. A British biosecurity expert, for instance, seemed to have made up her mind—without any proof—that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had destroyed the evidence of a lab accident. A political commentator in the U.S. seemed to have let his grievances against China get the better of him when he claimed in his Washington Post column that diplomatic cables sent in 2018 by the US embassy in Beijing were evidence for the lab leak theory, which many scientists say was a gross misinterpretation. The column marked a turning point in the origins debate, catapulting the lab leak theory to the mainstream.
Covering the COVID-19 origins controversy has been a treacherous journey mired with doubts, confusion, and even despair. The soul-searching reflection on journalistic objectivity and neutrality, the grappling with everybody’s biases—including my own—and facing up to many instances of subpar coverage on the topic are painful and illuminating in equal measures.
Walter Cronkite, the late CBS news anchor, famously said: “Journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” An objective method of understanding that embraces diversity, inclusivity and critical thinking is what we need to make journalism work—and to achieve its utmost ideals.
We are still a long way off. We can—and should—do much better.
Jane Qiu is an independent science writer in Beijing and a member of the U.S. National Association of Science Writers. Her awards include a 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. Her work on the origins of COVID-19 is supported by a Pulitzer Center travel grant. She will speak on the topic of her essay at the opening plenary of ScienceWriters2022 in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, October 2022.