How researchers get heard

Do We Want COVID Knowledge without Heat?

At one point last spring I was reading about 75 sites and streams a day to keep up with news and science about COVID-19. Today, I usually look at just one: COVID Act Now’s Daily Download newsletter.

COVID Act Now (or CAN), which is put out by a 501c3 of the same name, appeals to the scientist in me — it’s clean, precise, you can download all the data, and all the features provide exceptionally high signal-to-noise. (You might recall my earlier enthusiasm for COVID Explained, a site that sought to do just that for basic and common COVID questions using short, accessible language. COVID Explained merged with CAN a few months back.)

CAN’s Daily Download typically gives you a) a daily map of US risk levels; b) a couple of US vital stats (cases, deaths, first doses administered); 150-word summaries of the day’s two to three major news stories; c) 100-word summaries of the most significant studies out that day; d) links to a few popular news media features. That’s it. Research Rundown — Daily Download’s twice-weekly companion newsletter — focuses exclusively on the most important research and good multimedia or interactive COVID-19 resources, which I find addictive. The CAN site has much more information, including vaccination eligibility and rates by state. It’s all beautifully presented and never overwhelming.

It’s not just the convenience factor of good curation that draws me to CAN’s newsletters — Bloomberg and Vox and seeming every other hugely capitalized news media channel has a morning or nightly pandemic rundown. It’s also that Daily Download and Research Rundown fastidiously eliminate any of the annoying drama and charge of nearly all COVID-19 news reporting. No huge, panic-inducing headlines; no “civilization-at-stake” framing; no outrage to drive clicks and play to our finger-pointing. Just pellucid summaries of what an expert team has decided is of importance.

I feel like I can catch up quickly and learn in peace.

But I might just be alone.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote last month about an NBER working paper that found 87% of stories about COVID-19 published by US major media outlets were negative in tone, versus 50% for non-US media sources and 64% of COVID-19 papers and commentary in scientific journals.

As Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote, one of the working paper’s authors, pointed out to Leonhardt, extreme negativity in reporting shouldn’t surprise us: The most read or shared COVID-19 stories on Facebook were usually the most negative. “Human beings, particularly consumers of major media, like negativity in their stories,” Sacerdote told Leonhardt. “We think the major media are responding to consumer demand.”

Perhaps ironically, CAN’s data gets a fair amount of usage by the press — especially when cases are blowing up in a state or major metro county.

CAN also has backers and partners with deep pockets — Wendy Schmidt, a Steve Ballmer initiative, Stanford and Harvard and Georgetown. And, according to its Wikipedia page, it isn’t just in the business of providing public information — it “assists partners ranging from local county health departments to multinational corporations in developing COVID response plans,” and its API “is used by many of the Fortune 500 to make data-driven reopening decisions.” So it’s clearly not dependent on web traffic for continued funding.

I have held out hope that, as journalism morphs if not dissolves, there are and will increasingly be marketplace niches for relevant science curation that isn’t driven by a need to sell subscriptions or advertising: Curation that provides knowledge out of information, whose major selling point is that it doesn’t try to sell you anything. CAN’s content looks like what I imagined research-based knowledge for non-specialists might look like in a post-journalism age. But what content looks like and how it reads are always the least of whether it works — i.e., works for enough people enough times to secure the funding to keep on working.