Communicating Scientific Uncertainty in an Age of COVID-19: An Investigation into the Use of Preprints by Digital Media Outlets

Abstract:  In this article, we investigate the surge in use of COVID-19-related preprints by media outlets. Journalists are a main source of reliable public health information during crises and, until recently, journalists have been reluctant to cover preprints because of the associated scientific uncertainty. Yet, uploads of COVID-19 preprints and their uptake by online media have outstripped that of preprints about any other topic. Using an innovative approach combining altmetrics methods with content analysis, we identified a diversity of outlets covering COVID-19-related preprints during the early months of the pandemic, including specialist medical news outlets, traditional news media outlets, and aggregators. We found a ubiquity of hyperlinks as citations and a multiplicity of framing devices for highlighting the scientific uncertainty associated with COVID-19 preprints. These devices were rarely used consistently (e.g., mentioning that the study was a preprint, unreviewed, preliminary, and/or in need of verification). About half of the stories we analyzed contained framing devices emphasizing uncertainty. Outlets in our sample were much less likely to identify the research they mentioned as preprint research, compared to identifying it as simply “research.” This work has significant implications for public health communication within the changing media landscape. While current best practices in public health risk communication promote identifying and promoting trustworthy sources of information, the uptake of preprint research by online media presents new challenges. At the same time, it provides new opportunities for fostering greater awareness of the scientific uncertainty associated with health research findings.