Inaccuracies, irresponsible coverage, and conflicts of interest in The New YorkerWritten: 25 Sep 2021 by Rachel Thomas
If you haven’t already read the terrible New Yorker long covid article, I don’t recommend doing so. Here is the letter I sent to the editor. Feel free to reuse or modify as you like. The below are just a subset of the many issues with the article. If you are looking for a good overview of long covid and patient advocacy, please instead read Ed Yong’s Long-Haulers Are Fighting for their Future.
Dear New Yorker editors,
I was disturbed by the irresponsible description of a suicide (in violation of journalism guidelines), undisclosed conflicts of interest, and omission of relevant medical research and historical context in the article, “The Struggle to Define Long Covid,” by Dhruv Khullar.
Irresponsible description of a suicide
The article contained a description of a patient’s suicide with sensationalistic details, including about the method used. This is a violation of widely accepted journalism standards on how to cover suicide. Over 100 studies worldwide have found that risk of suicide contagion is real and responsible reporting can help mitigate this. Please consider these resources developed in collaboration with a host of organizations, including the CDC: Recommendations – Reporting on Suicide
Conflicts of Interest
Both Khullar and one of his sources, oncologist Vinay Prasad, have funding from Arnold Ventures, the private investment fund created by ex-Enron hedge fund billionaire John Arnold, for projects that help hospitals reduce costs by cutting care. At a minimum, your article should be updated to note this conflict of interest.
Omission of relevant history
Khullar repeatedly discussed how patients distrust doctors and may accuse doctors of “gaslighting,” yet he never once mentioned why this would be the case: the long history of medical racism, sexism, and ableism, all of which are ongoing problems in medicine and well-documented in dozens of peer-reviewed studies. He also failed to mention the history of many other physiological conditions (such as multiple sclerosis) being dismissed as psychological until scientists caught up and found the physiological origins. His description of the AIDS activist group ACT UP didn’t acknowledge that AIDS research would not have progressed in the incredible way that it has if ACT UP had not “clashed with scientists.”
Omission of relevant medical research
Khullar omitted the extensive medical research on how long covid patients, including those with mild or no symptoms, have been shown to suffer physiological issues including neurological damage, complement-mediated thrombotic microangiopathy, GI immune system damage, corneal nerve fibre loss, immunological dysfunction, increased risk of kidney outcomes, dysfunction in T cell memory generation, cognitive dysfunction and deficits possibly setting the stage for Alzheimer’s, and ovarian failure.
Khullar tries to portray his main subject (and by extension, long covid patients in general) as unscientific, focusing on statements that are not substantiated by academic research, rather than highlighting the many aspects of long covid that are already well researched and well supported (or the research on related post-viral illnesses, including POTS and ME/CFS), or even all the long covid patients who have published in peer-reviewed journals. For example, when his main subject talks about long covid impacting the brain, Khullar hyper focuses on explaining that there is no evidence of covid crossing the blood-brain barrier, ignoring the larger point (which is supported by numerous studies) that long covid causes changes to the brain, even if the exact mechanism is unknown. This is a tactic commonly used by those trying to make science appear murkier than it is, and a general audience will leave this article with harmful misunderstandings.
I hope that you will update Khullar’s article to address these inaccuracies, financial conflicts of interest, and irresponsible suicide coverage. In its current state, many readers of this article will walk away with misconceptions about long covid, causing them to underestimate its severity and how much has already been confirmed by research.
Rachel Thomas, PhD
To contact the New Yorker for yourself
Feel free to reuse or modify my post above if it is helpful to you. From the New Yorker website:
Please send letters to [email protected], and include your postal address and daytime phone number. Letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. All letters become the property of The New Yorker.
Medicine is Political
The myth that medicine is perfectly rational, objective, and apolitical (in contrast to irrational activist patients) pervaded Khullar’s article. I put together a twitter thread with links to other history, research, and resources to try to debunk this. Please read more here:
Medicine, like all of science, is political:— Rachel Thomas (@math_rachel) September 25, 2021
- which questions get asked
- which projects get funded
- how debates get framed
- who the researchers are
- context of data (what categories, what labels, which biases, what is left out)
- whose suffering is counted 1/
This article was updated on 9/26 to correct information about Arnold Ventures.