If three million people died of an accident at work, what would you think would be the popular reactions and in the press?
I’m asking the question this way because it’s entirely possible that this is what happened with COVID-19 – in fact, it could be the most likely explanation for the origin of the pandemic. This is the conclusion that acclaimed science journalist Nicholas Wade came to recently. in a detailed article on Medium, where he meticulously examines the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis and finds the plausible but unproven case, while the case against it, and for a natural origin, is incredibly slim.
Wade isn’t the first person with impeccable credentials to come to this conclusion. Nicholson baker exhaustive story of the laboratory leak hypothesis in New York Magazine was released in January, and it carefully leads the reader from a stance of skepticism to realize just how plausible the hypothesis is. Indeed, you might have seriously considered the idea much earlier; The Washington Post ran many articles in the spring of 2020 on that possibility, highlighting that U.S. officials were concerned about the safety of the Wuhan laboratory years before the pandemic.
In other words, for over a year there has been considerable skepticism in knowledgeable circles about the theory that COVID-19 emerged in the wild and originated spread to the Wuhan wet markets, and suspicions that, in fact, it emerged by accident from a Wuhan laboratory specializing in coronavirus research. Why, then, does this view still resemble a marginal conspiracy theory? Why has it not been at the center of information activities since the start of the pandemic?
The standard response is that journalists feared fueling anti-Asian sentiment, which in effect contributed to a meteoric increase in hate crimes. But if it was anyone’s reasoning, it was poorly thought out. The alternative to the laboratory leak hypothesis is that the virus that disrupts the world arose because ordinary Chinese people like to eat exotic animals. What is most likely to fuel hate crimes against Asians walking the streets: a story about poor security in a Chinese lab or a story about Chinese cooking traditions that most Americans are likely to find disgusting?
Maybe reporters didn’t want to play in a Cold War mentality, or cover up a Trump administration eager to blame China. But if the laboratory leak hypothesis is true, it involves Washington as much as Beijing, as coronavirus research conducted in Wuhan has been substantially funded and overseen by Americans, including the US government.
Moreover, even though the hypothesis of a laboratory leak is false, the evidence is overwhelming that the Chinese government denied the severity of the epidemic for weeks, silencing Chinese voices trying to sound the alarm, before the decision to lock down Wuhan made cover-up impossible. By then, however, the pandemic was already well underway. The Chinese government’s guilt is clear, in other words, regardless of the truth about the origins of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, if the story of the origins of the pandemic seemed to be a distraction when the most pressing question was how to contain and defeat the virus, consider the contrast to how disasters like nuclear accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, or the Bhopal chemical disaster, were and continue to be covered. The importance of how the accidents happened, not only in assigning blame but also in preventing them from happening again, was obvious from the start. Why has it not always been true for the origins of COVID-19?
I doubt there is a single answer, but what my different assumptions have in common is the suspicion that those who cover the story would let questions about how the story would be understood prevent them from finding out what that was the story. Rather than being driven by a desire to know the truth and speak that truth to power (whether that power is in Washington or Wuhan), I fear that a brake has been applied to serve an ill-defined social interest, even if the only interest supported the public health authorities on whom we were all counting to get through the pandemic, and who were quick to assert that the virus was of natural origin.
But this is public relations, not journalism, and public relations is not how you build trust, whether in journalism or in public authorities. Good journalism is driven by fundamentally anti-social forces: skepticism of conventional wisdom, distrust of authority, a determination to ask unpleasant questions and refuse to accept heartwarming answers. These anti-social forces only have pro-social effects if they are applied universally – not because all authorities equally deserve skepticism, but because all deserve it to some extent, and playing favorites does not improve the situation. public confidence in the favored authority, but only decreases the public. confidence in professional journalism.
You can see the consequences of the opposite approach in mainstream media articles that cover the laboratory leak hypothesis. Because the topic has been equated with the American Borg Cultural War, writers must carefully sidestep their audiences’ perceptions that only haters and cranks would believe such a thing. It is a perception that the mainstream media have helped create; it is not surprising that they are reluctant to challenge it directly. But it’s their job to do it.
We still have to find out what happened in Wuhan as it is the only way to apply pressure to prevent this from happening again. If you think nuclear power has an important role to play in tackling climate change (as I do), then you should want security issues to be looked at as aggressively and thoroughly as possible, so that the public has confidence when a reactor is declared safe. If you think virology research has an important role to play in improving human health (like me), then you should want the origins of COVID-19 to be studied as aggressively and thoroughly as possible, to exactly the same reasons.
The same is true if you hope for a more cooperative relationship between the United States and China, or between the American public and its media.