UC Berkeley panelists discuss journalism, research challenges during COVID-19

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UC Berkeley panelists discussed the challenges researchers and journalists face when providing accurate information about a pandemic and helping the public to navigate COVID-19 in a Berkeley campus conversation event Wednesday.

Moderating the discussion was Frederick Wehrle, assistant dean for academic design and innovation at UC Berkeley Extension, with John Swartzberg, campus public health professor emeritus, and Edward Wasserman, dean of the campus Graduate School of Journalism.

“Most of my experience with journalism and my 40 years of experience of infectious disease have come together at this one moment of time,” Swartzberg said. “My colleagues and I are struggling to learn about it, just how journalists are struggling to learn how to present it to the public.”

Swartzberg added that journalists currently face the challenge of reporting from a “binary” viewpoint when considering issues between opening up society or continuing to shelter in place.

Due to the struggle to maintain an audience and the overall shrinkage in the news business, the news media complex is at a “make or break moment,” according to Wasserman.

“The responsibility of journalists is to get it right, but this is a particularly perplexing challenge in a setting where the nature of knowledge is under daily revision and daily redevelopment,” Wasserman said.

Journalists facing the pressure of producing news quickly about the virus may need to relinquish normal methods of verification and credibility, according to Wasserman.

Swartzberg said while journalism generally works on a 24/7 news cycle, scientists have to be methodical and slow in their work around the virus.

“What the public needs to understand is that these opinions that they’re going to get from people like me and my colleagues are not necessarily going to be right,” Swartzberg said. “The science is going to change in the next two or three weeks — we’re seeing this all the time now and we don’t get it right all the time.”

Swartzberg said sheltering in place cannot be indefinite — states will need to figure out a way to bring people back into society while continuing to prevent infection rates from exacerbating.

A “robust” system with well-trained contact tracers monitoring people returning to the workplace, consistent availability of hospital beds and enough personal protective equipment for health care workers will need to be in place in order to keep infection numbers low, according to Swartzberg.

Wasserman added that access to social safety nets also need to be in place, especially if unemployment continues to make it harder for hospital patients to pay their medical bills.

“The role of the press is to, when necessary, put on the brakes and to try to illuminate the more thoughtful and helpful policy options, and to continue calling attention to the people who are suffering disproportionately and unduly from this contagion,” Wasserman said.

Contact Olivia Buccieri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @obuccieri_dc‏.