Pseudoscientific Theses and the Responsibility of the Media

13
Image: Penu Kiratzov

By Petar Galev

Petar Galev is a media analyst with years of experience in the study of social and traditional media. As part of the team at the media analysis agency Perseptica, he is involved in the preparation of a number of reports that look in-depth at the media aspect of crucial social and political issues.

One of the most important advantages that supporters of the COVID-19 vaccination have is the fact that the specialists and the scientific and medical communities are on their side. They highlight the benefits for public health and the number of people that would be saved if all those who have no contraindications receive the vaccine. This is the global medical and scientific consensus on the subject.

Opposing theses are advocated by a very limited minority, consisting mainly of already compromised “experts.” In much of the world, their views are not covered by the mainstream media because they are considered as fringe opinions, or as so unscientific that even mentioning them brings nothing but noise and blurs debate on the important topics.

For example, imagine that when talking about the shape of the Earth we provided a floor for discussion to people who think that it is flat. And imagine that their claim was given the same weight as the scientific consensus that our planet is a geoid. Some of the arguments of the Flat Earth Society may sound extremely logical and even credible – but only if they are isolated from all human knowledge of the subject.

What is Happening in Bulgaria

Contrary to world practice, in Bulgaria these marginal theories about vaccines not only find good ground in the media but also come from people who have a claim to expertise.

Associate Prof Atanas Mangarov, who was appointed head of the department for the treatment of patients with coronavirus at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Sofia in 2020, and Prof Andrey Chorbanov, who is head of the Department of Immunology at the Institute of Microbiology, are the most prominent defenders of such theories in the Bulgarian media. To a large extent, they were not only against conducting a mass immunization campaign in the fall of 2021 (in the case of Prof. Chorbanov – with vaccines other than those developed by him) but also against the common understanding of the seriousness of COVID-19 and the danger that the disease poses for public health. At various times, they have spoken out against mass vaccination during a pandemic, against vaccinating people outside risk groups, against measures proven effective worldwide (such as wearing masks indoors) and have questioned the effectiveness of vaccines.

One such example of a marginal theory is the statement by Mangarov that “people who have naturally produced any of the variants of COVID do not get sick – neither from Delta, nor from Beta, nor from Alpha.” This statement – which he made in an interview for one of Bulgaria’s most-read media outlets – contradicts the data on cases of re-infection, although their number is still not that large. There are also studies that vaccination after COVID-19 significantly reduces the risk of re-infection.

We could also point to Chorbanov’s statement that “the vaccinated and those who had COVID-19 should not wear masks because they do not pose a danger to society and do not transmit the virus.” This claim has been refuted again and again by health experts, and this preventive measure is also included in the guidelines of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

These and other similar statements are dangerous because they undermine the credibility of the information and advice given by the vast majority of medical professionals around the world. What’s more, they are fast becoming a weapon for disinformation campaigns against vaccination and against the pandemic in general. Additional negative effects come from the fact that the Bulgarian media clearly do not make any efforts to verify such claims or at least provide some context.

The Media Coverage

From January to September 2021, the 24 most influential media in Bulgaria  published 577 articles that feature either Mangarov or Chorbanov. Another 436 publications mentioned the views of the two on the vaccines, but without bringing them to the forefront. In 90% of these 577 journalistic pieces, the statements of the two were covered uncritically, without any analysis or attempt at interpretation.

This data is based on an analysis of the content of all articles that reflect the opinions of Mangarov or Chorbanov on the vaccines against COVID-19. The articles were collected through the system of media analysis by Perceptica through specially defined search strings, and their evaluation is based on how the media present the claims of Mangarov or Chorbanov. The analysis includes the web pages of the two public media – the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR) and the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) – and the national televisions bTV and Nova TV, as well as the 20 most popular news websites according to data from alexa.com, available in a publication on e-vestnik.bg. These are all mainstream media with great influence. 

Among the particularly disturbing conclusions from the analysis is that the public media BNR and BNT are among those sources that give the floor to Mangarov and Chorbanov – and they do so . In some cases, it is through a deliberately organized “debate” between one of them and another expert (this format is especially popular on national television). However, this is not a real debate, because there can only be one between equal claims, not between, on the one hand, real facts, supported by an extremely large amount of data, and on the other hand, statements that are not accepted by anyone in the world. Moreover, such “debates” only give undeserved legitimacy to marginal theses, presenting them as if they are equivalent to the facts.

Only 10% of the 577 articles offer any criticism or context for the statements of Mangarov and Chorbanov. Part of the publications come from several sources, which in general rarely allow themselves to reflect the positions of the two. Some of these websites only have one article with the positions of Mangarov and Chorbanov and this article is largely an analysis of their statements. What is interesting is the case with the news website 24chasa.bg, which until the end of August 2021 reflected the opinions of the two without any additional comment. From the beginning of September, however, the policy of the media changed and it began to write critical materials about Mangarov.

Even these pieces, however, sometimes simply state the position of an institution or a specialist concerning something said by Mangarov or Chorbanov. The most prominent such case is the scandal with Mangarov’s statement about deceased vaccinated patients, which was subsequently refuted by the heads of two large hospitals. Also, a significant part of these critical articles is actually related to the political situation and the affiliation of these two with a certain party.

Politics During Pandemic Times 

That Bulgaria in 2021 has been in a state of a permanent election campaign also plays an adverse role. (Bulgaria has had three parliamentary elections in eight months and a caretaker cabinet was appointed after two unsuccessful attempts to form a regular government in April and July. Following the elections on 14 Nov a four-party coalition took over in December). On the one hand, Mangarov and Chorbanov have received increased media coverage as political candidates, and on the other, the candidates seek to present opinions that will distinguish them and lure certain voters. This provides a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of marginal theories nurtured by experts who apparently will do anything to attract attention.

The lack of criticism of the statements and opinions expressed by Mangarov or Chorbanov in the media is another serious problem. A socially responsible media should put such words in context by presenting what all other scientists in the world think. The media seriously misinterprets a basic journalistic principle to present “all points of view,” omitting a crucial element that not every point of view is equal to the others. This uncritical approach and refusal to explain that such statements are not supported by scientific facts leave a completely wrong impression on the audience.

The result is confusion and what seems to look like a clash of authorities, which gives the impression that even in the scientific and medical community there is no consensus on the issue of vaccines. But in fact, there is a consensus reached by hundreds of specialists in immunology, virology, biology, statistics, and other disciplines. Such specialists, however, jointly receive only about as much space and attention as Mangarov and Chorbanov. It is only natural that this confusion reinforces the general feeling of insecurity. And insecurity makes people distrustful of even the most well-intentioned and convincing attempts to explain the benefits of vaccination.

Solutions

What is logical is to look for the solution in the behaviour of the media themselves and the need for them to approach society responsibly (and not provocatively). Yes, sensations sell and boring facts do not, but selling too many sensations in this case indirectly leads to fewer consumers to sell to in the future. Every media outlet should pursue, at least to some extent, a public mission and should strive to be useful to its audience. That is, to present marginal theories precisely as such and not give the same platform to ideas that can never be equal (not by criteria such as credibility, verifiability, and public benefit). It is completely wrong for some journalists to justify their actions by stating that “in a democracy, different opinions must be heard so that people can make informed choices.”

In this sense, such a decision could only come from within, from the media themselves or the media community as a whole – for example in the form of self-regulation. It is extremely difficult and inefficient to try to impose such a decision by force from outside. That might lead to a negative reaction and to well-founded accusations of censorship. One much easier approach for the media to both understand and implement is to offer context to each statement with questionable credibility. This can be done through an explanatory text, or in the case of news sites, through links and even graphics illustrating real data.

Among the easily refuted but extremely popular statements of Mangarov is that no autopsies are performed on those who died from COVID-19. His fellow party member Rumen Petkov (who is the leader of the centre-left Alternative for Bulgarian Revival Party) advocates a similar thesis. This claim is often associated with a false ban by the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, autopsies of patients who have died of COVID have been performed since the beginning of the pandemic – although not in every case of course. There is no ban on this from the WHO. All this is extremely easy to check and it is enough to simply seek the opinion of a pathologist or a WHO representative. And accordingly, this should be the focus of the publication, in case the media insists on publishing the opinion of the associate professor.

Providing context could also come in the form of giving additional but important details about the person who shares their opinion in the article. For example, the media should always add that the opinion has been expressed by an MP candidate who is currently campaigning. Or that the person in question is developing their own vaccine, which they hope to raise funding for or get approved. Such clarifications would inform the audience of the possible motives behind the opinions expressed and would help them perceive these opinions with at least a pinch of healthy scepticism.

All this is only part of the explanation of why Bulgaria is one of the least vaccinated countries in the current pandemic. To these, we should add the inability of social platforms to deal with the spread of mininformation, poor critical thinking skills and an inability to recognize reliable sources of information, the inconsistency of the measures imposed at different times by the health authorities in the country, etc. Among other things, what stands out is the lack of political leadership at the beginning of the immunization campaign in declaring firm and unequivocal support for vaccination. This support should then be advocated consistently, using data on the benefits of vaccination. It is in this vacuum, created in the absence of leadership, that the increasingly prominent populists play with the anti-vax sentiments flourishing among part of the people.

There are many reasons for the distrust toward COVID-19 vaccines in Bulgaria, but this should in no way lead to the media’s refusal to take responsibility. On the contrary, a change in their behaviour would help increase the trust in the vaccination process. And this trust has also been lost because of what the media does and does not do during pandemic times.