Covid, Conspiracies and Chaos — Media and Medicine Take Note

When Vigilante Journalism Runs Unchecked, People Die

Gil Bashe
Published in
5 min readJan 28


Photo Credit: iStock by Allkindza

Since the rise of digital platforms, more and more top-tier journalists have left iconic media brands to find new homes. Remember people’s initial surprise when Forbes’ Matt Herper left in 2019 to join STAT News — the powerhouse, fast-moving health-industry digital-only platform connected to the Boston Globe. These are distinct publications with separate staffs; the two share some content and complement one another. But they share one significant commonality — both hold themselves accountable to journalism fact-checking standards.

Does viewership of a heavily edited video make it true? I have seen the famed Project Veritas video numerous times and know it’s been viewed millions of times. There is a constant swirl of noise around the video’s authenticity, the virus’s origin, gain of function (GOF) research and the speed of development of varied Covid vaccines. We will need to address the media credibility challenge more and more as technologies enable rapid evaluation of pathogen threats and the ability for innovators to respond speedily.

Wild, Unverified News is Nothing New

Wild, unverified news is nothing new. However, the speed at which it travels, thanks to technology, is the fodder for conspiracy theorists to create societal chaos. Remember, browsing magazines and papers at the supermarket check-out. The National Enquirer, the entertaining American tabloid newspaper with the wildest headlines, was a welcomed way to pass the time as the long line closed in on the cashier’s conveyor belt.

As leading daily business newspapers increasingly compete for readers and advertising dollars, they have forged ahead with digital access alternatives — often accessible only behind a paywall. Truth — verified information — suddenly comes at a (monthly subscription) cost. In most communities, gone is the young teen on their bicycle riding by and throwing your daily news onto a stoop. Yet, newspapers — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and all major newspapers always required you to pay a subscription. You tipped the paper delivery — but you paid for the truth.

Even Major Media Can Wander into the Swamp

All media can succumb to the temptation to follow some well-known “titled” pundit with an axe to grind. Remember the swamp created some years ago by a noted Midwestern physician who questioned a Food and Drug Administration-approved for-market cholesterol drug with a baseless theory causing countless people to go off their medications? His words and honed soundbites were covered by most top-tier newspapers and magazines and were amplified by headlines such as “Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?” Thankfully his pet-peeve theories were soon proven without merit. But how about the countless patients who listened, read and suffered? At what cost — some, their lives. This deadly chaos is still happening thanks to supposed investigational groups that seek to rally the mob.

We expect societal salvation at warp speed. We want life-saving solutions from pharma, policies that prop up the economy from the White House, and public health direction from CDC. When do we want it? We want it now! However, these wild, unchecked and verified videos and news sources — sometimes the voices of individuals with either no first-hand knowledge or with a desire for 15 minutes of fame — add to the pandemic of public health confusion. It is time that we awoke to the reality that conspiracy theorists are allies to the deadly virus that has taken more than six million lives worldwide.

Speed and Sensationalism

Sadly, the rapid popularity of this video is endemic to a society that thirsts for sensationalism and, at the same time, will need immediate medical solutions to future public health threats. It opens the door to these sorts of news grabbers. Media also relies on speed and speculation to attract audiences. However, as it did this time, it must now rally to reject the urge to “cover speculative and dirty news.” This specific video — its yet unproven comments — is woven into the public health risk we now face. The perfect storm of the desire for immediacy and not stopping to ask a critical question of what we see and hear: “Is it true?”

If you don’t pay, perhaps you don’t care. Or you don’t worry if the grabbing headlines that make extraordinary claims are verified or “Veritas.” For science, public health professionals, health communicators and innovators, that is a significant, life-threatening problem. At this point, “I heard it on the news” or “I saw it posted on Twitter” is akin to historical fact. Even if one person says something — a stretch of the imagination without validation — we’re inclined to believe it as “fact.”

Medicine has always been about risk/risk and risk/benefit. The risk of possible side effects alongside the risk of a deadly disease. The benefit of not dying alongside the risk of the unknown. We seem to forget what the world looked like during the COVID lockdown — mental anguish, a collapsing world economy, and ERs straining under the weight of dying patients. We celebrated clinical solutions that reduced the steady death count globally. Now, we look to poke holes in the heroes who saved lives. Enough.

Enough with Entertaining Lies

The societal desire for “I want it now” invites these sensational moments. But the ability of conspiracy theorists to rally millions of followers or readers to do more than question — to attack science and scientists — is a feeder to make unverified video footage into the material that political leaders use for self-agenda soapbox speeches and grandstanding TV celebrities to attract viewers as if they don’t have a self-serving agenda. Project Veritas is just the newest digital version of the supermarket tabloid. Based on its track record of lies and more lies, it’s amusing. Not truth.

Urgency is a double-edged sword for drug developers, pharma manufacturers, regulators and reporters. Tribal thirst for sensationalism — at all costs and speed — must never be allowed to crush the spirits of scientists who toil at lab benches trying to save lives. That would be too terrible a toil for all.

Yes, cost and speed are framing what some jump to as believe is the truth. If so, without letting dedicated journalists and scientists do their jobs, people’s lives will be placed at risk again and again.



Gil Bashe

Ambassador for health communications as the bridge connecting healers and those seeking to be healed. Medika Life author and editor-in-chief.