The Media's COVID Success

Correcting its coverage of the lab-leak theory is not a sign of failure. It shows the system works.

For a counterpoint to this article, see Zaid Jilani's “The Media's COVID Failure.”

By Jonathan Rauch

In 2017, CNN fired three senior correspondents for erring on a story about President Trump. In responding, Trump might have tweeted out some comment like, “Kudos to CNN for caring enough about truth to correct its story and clean house, that’s Real News!” What he actually said was this: “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”

We can all immediately recognize what Trump was up to: trolling the mainstream media for doing what he personally never does, namely holding itself accountable. In Trump Land, corrections are proof of dishonesty, not integrity. 

In the spring of last year, much of the mainstream media jumped to the conclusion that COVID-19’s possible leak from a Chinese lab was, as The Washington Post put it, a “fringe theory.” Now it turns out that the lab-leak hypothesis is a live possibility. Scientists, journalists, and the Biden administration all agree that it was dismissed too quickly and needs investigating.

No doubt you already know that the mainstream media messed up, because mainstream media outlets are falling all over each other to tell you. As The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last notes, “At this point, we’ve probably had more media self-criticism than actual pieces making the faulty declaration against the lab-leak theory.”

You could draw two different conclusions from all this. One is a Trump-style conclusion: “Wow, the media had to retract a huge story about the coronavirus. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” This is the conclusion that rapidly became conventional wisdom, even in the mainstream media.

Or you could reach a different conclusion: The original error (if it proves to be an error—still unclear) was regrettable but understandable, and what we are seeing is a praiseworthy example of error correction and accountability—something we need more of, not less.

The second conclusion is the right one.

To see why, we must begin by playing fair. It’s not the case that all outlets got the story wrong all the time. No doubt, many were too quick to assume the lab leak had been ruled out or was a conspiracy theory. But coverage in The New York Times, for example, presented the lab-escape hypothesis as an open question, while dismissing as “a conspiracy theory [that] lacks evidence and has been dismissed by scientists” the idea that the virus was a deliberately engineered Chinese bioweapon—a different and crazier claim, though the two were sometimes conflated.

“A review of last year’s stories finds a largely cautious approach, relying on what expert sources had to say at the time, and the corrections have been few,” Paul Farhi and Jeremy Barr wrote last month in The Washington Post. They added that “the media coverage was hardly monolithic"—although you would never know that from reading the sweeping condemnations that abound these days. Treating the errors of some outlets as the sins of the entire industry is lazy and overbroad: ironically, exactly the charge that critics are leveling now against the industry.

That may sound like a quibble, and perhaps in isolation it would be. Add to it, though, some further considerations.

Journalists are not epidemiologists or virologists. They have to rely on expert opinion. In March of 2020, expert opinion was heavily on one side. The original (and much-criticized) PolitiFact fact-check may have gone too far in debunking the claim that the virus was human-built as a “pants on fire” falsehood, but it also noted: “That doesn’t rule out the possibility that Chinese researchers were studying the virus in a lab when it managed to spread outside the lab.” And the article itself is a reasonable summary of what reporters were being told by seemingly authoritative sources. In fact, many experts still believe the lab-origin hypothesis is unlikely. In June, for example, Dr. Anthony Fauci called it “a possibility”—but a “very, very, very, very remote possibility.”

Be that as it may, today’s critics level another charge: that journalists and experts alike were blinded by anti-Trump bias. They jumped from the fact that Trump was blaming China to the conclusion that the lab-leak theory must be a crazy conspiracy theory. Zaid Jilani, for example, writing in Persuasion, cites “a wider mindset among American journalists, many of whom saw their mission as simply opposing any stance taken by the Trump administration.”

It is true that healthy journalistic skepticism can cross over into partisan political favoritism, but that is not what happened in this case, because the politician at issue is Donald Trump. This is a person whose factual claims, during the 2016 campaign, were rated mostly or entirely false by PolitiFact 70 percent of the time (versus 28 percent for Hillary Clinton). This is a person who launched his political career with a lie about Barack Obama’s place of birth. On his first day in office, he lied about whether it rained during his inauguration and about the size of the crowd. He altered a weather forecast. He clocked over 30,000 documented falsehoods over the course of his presidency.

Trump is not just someone who has a dicey relationship with truth. He was—and still is, in the context of his propaganda campaign against the 2020 election—applying Russian-style disinformation techniques: methods like the firehose of falsehood (pouring out so many falsehoods through so many channels that no one can keep up), trolling (behaving outrageously and trashing cherished norms in order to seize and dominate public attention), and conspiracy bootstrapping (amplifying conspiracy theories and then claiming refutations are part of a cover-up).

Still, despite Trump’s dubious advocacy and a rush to judgment, the lab-leak hypothesis resurfaced. Why did it re-emerge? In significant part, because some very high-profile journalists, like Nicholas Wade and Donald G. McNeil Jr., and some very mainstream outlets, like The Wall Street Journal, kept watch on developments and reported that the early dismissal had been hasty.

In other words, the mainstream media did its job. Yes, it may have made a mistake. But it identified its mistake. It corrected its mistake. It debated and analyzed its mistake (almost ad nauseam). In short, it behaved better than most of its critics.

If every outlet had gotten the reporting on COVID-19’s possible origin exactly right on Day One, that would have been better. But the error was understandable in the thick fog of the early epidemic. 

Mainstream journalism, science, and other branches of the reality-based community succeed not because they never err, but because they find and correct their errors—imperfectly, but far faster and more reliably than in any other system. That system only works if accountability is rewarded—not trolled, shamed, and ridiculed.

So, if you are inclined to treat the lab-leak affair as yet another case of media malfeasance, pause and remember: Bashing the media for making—but correcting—mistakes is Trump’s game, and you’re playing it.

Jonathan Rauch is the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.