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Why Much Of The Media Dismissed Theories That COVID Leaked From Lab


President Biden's order that the U.S. formally investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that there are things we still do not know for sure. Government scientists are now seriously looking at whether the virus escaped from a virology lab in Wuhan, China. That was a theory that was pretty much shot down by leading pandemic researchers and a lot of major news organizations, including NPR, until very recently. I talked to NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik about why so many media organizations dismissed the idea that the virus could have leaked from a lab.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: When you have an outbreak of a pandemic, science reporters see themselves as serving a public health mission, trying to get out authoritative information. Early on, reporting suggested that it came from a wet market where these wild farmed animals were being slaughtered in Wuhan, China. There's some signs that suggest that, but there's nothing conclusive. Then this hypothesis emerged about the idea it could have leaked from a lab that's doing research on bat viruses, the stuff of science fiction - unlikely, but possible. That was dismissed and ridiculed by the media. And why? Well, in large part, it's because of the source of it.

Former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were pushing this idea, citing intelligence they simply wouldn't release. Trump, of course, had proved an unreliable narrator on the pandemic, as on so many things. Journalists feared that it might be like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, where there were these vast threats cited without any proof. And The Washington Post - here's one example - you know, said this was a conspiracy theory peddled by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton that had been debunked. It hadn't been debunked. It still hasn't. We don't know. The Post, more recently, corrected that. I think this basically became a political story.

KING: Like so much else these days. Give me, David, if you would, an example of something that you think the media did wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Let me give you two examples. First, the role of China in limiting access to researchers for the World Health Organization and others who were trying to investigate this, you know, should have been front-loaded into coverage because, really, they cordoned off the ability of people to get a clear sight into the lab. And I think also there is a source often referred to, a guy named Peter Daszak. He's the head of this group called the EcoHealth Alliance, an incredible authority on pandemics and researcher. But he was involved in a number of ways in knocking down - early in 2020, in a letter he helped to orchestrate in The Lancet medical journal as a source for news organizations, including NPR - knocking down the idea that this could have leaked from a lab. But his group actually helped to fund that lab. He had an interest in it, in some ways, and in its success. And there were a number of times where NPR and other news organizations didn't acknowledge that confluence or conflicts of interest so that we could fully evaluate his role even as he was shooting down this theory.

KING: So why is the theory that this virus might have leaked from a lab getting more credibility now among mainstream media?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there are three reasons. The first is the nature of science itself. As our knowledge evolves and shifts over time, coverage also will change. But I don't think that's all that's going on here. Earlier this year, there was a letter from a small group of respected scientists who said, look, this may not be likely, but it sure needs to be investigated, the lab leak theory. And then more recently, President Biden said, look, let's investigate this, matter of national security. We need to know so that we can prevent future pandemics.

KING: What are the consequences of how the media handled this early on?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's take our first principles here in the media. We have to interrogate what we know, how we know, even in times of crisis. We have to be an honest broker of facts that lead to the truth. And we have to give our audiences enough information and context to evaluate what we present to them. When the media doesn't listen closely enough, when it doesn't challenge its own instincts, I think we give grist to those who would undermine the credibility of the press and, by extension, the scientific and public health communities, too. I think, regardless of what proves to be the source of the outbreak, that happened in this instance, and it's unfortunate.

KING: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

David, thanks for your time. We appreciate it.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.