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Coronavirus, statistical chaos and the news, one year on

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An Nguyen is an associate professor of journalism at Bournemouth University, with research expertise in science and health journalism, including newsroom approaches to data and statistics and their impact on public opinion. His recent work includes News, Numbers and Public Opinion in a Data-Driven World

The coronavirus has hit the world at a time when journalism does not seem to be in a terribly good position to deal with its vast uncertainty and complexity.

Decades of immense economic pressures have led the news industry to slash many specialist science, health and data journalists.

Meanwhile, journalists often get a bad press for lacking the ability to handle, scrutinise, communicate or even truly engage with statistics. Quite a few see numeracy as "a kind of virus which, if caught, can damage the literary brain" while others proudly admit they are not good at maths. Many, if not most, would take a laid-back approach to numbers in the naïve belief that they speak for themselves.

Which is why I have been uplifted to hear many positive reflections by senior journalists, statisticians, scientists and media scholars at recent conferences, such as the News Impact Summit on data journalism in November 2020 and the one-day Coronavirus, Statistical Chaos and the News symposium (below) that I chaired in December on behalf of Bournemouth University, the Royal Statistical Society and the Association of British Science Writers.

Even some of the staunchest critics see journalism as a crucial positive force in guiding the public through covid-19 data and science. By August, for instance, 86 per cent of the UK public understood what R0 means and 77 per cent knew what an antibody test is.

There are criticisms and self-criticisms – and rightly so. But it is crucial not to be immersed in the negatives, without being able to see and learn from the positives. Four words can be used to capture journalism's performance in the first year of the pandemic: chaos, resilience, innovation and order.

Chaos in uncertain waters

Nothing has brought statistics to the centre of daily life like the coronavirus: everything we do at an individual, organisational and societal level depends literally on what the numbers tell us.

In March, as virtually every UK adult (99 per cent) accessed news about covid-19 at least once a day, an endless influx of specialist numbers and concepts suddenly permeated into the physical and cultural space of the lockdown family.

"Scary" things – R-naught, infection rate, transmission rate, death rate, excess deaths, false positive, false negative and so on – abounded everywhere, from computer screens to household conversations.

However, the public’s maximal thirst for answers were met with a minimal understanding of scientists about the novel virus. As Ann Hemingway, professor of public health and wellbeing at Bournemouth University, observed, scientists became "experts with no evidence," advising politicians and people primarily on the basis of their knowledge of previous viruses.

The urgency led to an unprecedented number of online preprints........

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