By Merlin Tuttle
A reminder that our members DO make a difference! Leading news media outlets are changing tack, publishing more positive, and fewer negative, stories about bats as a direct result of MTBC members’ ongoing support and actions.
Your vigilance brings misleading articles to our attention. Your support enables us to carefully document and explain issues of concern. Your personal, diplomatic comments to editors influence their further actions. Media portrayal of bats cannot be ignored. It is key to broad public understanding and support, without which conservation progress could prove impossible.
Since 2014, we’ve prepared and distributed 15 blog posts and 18 Bat Flashes providing counterpoint documentation in response to exaggerated, misleading, and often completely wrong speculation attempting to link bats to rare, but scary diseases. Widely distributed publications included “Give Bats a Break” in Issues in Science and Technology (subsequently translated into French and Chinese), “Fear of Bats and its Consequences” in the Journal of Bat Research and Conservation, and “Humans Shouldn’t Be So Scared of Bats” in Slate. Additionally, the science journal, Nature, published a co-authored response in its correspondence section, titled “Don’t misrepresent link between bats and SARS.”
Illustrating our combined impact, New Scientist, on February 8, 2014, published one of the worst bat disease articles ever. It was titled “Reservoir bats: “Spreading contagion on night’s wings” with the following subheading, “Hordes of deadly diseases are lurking in bats and sometimes jumping to people. Can we prevent a major pandemic?”
Of those we have contacted, several leading publishers have become strong advocates for putting bat disease speculation in perspective. And with their help we’re reaching millions of people worldwide.
When Zeit Online published an article (2018) with a subheading titled, “No animal distributes more nasty, dangerous-to-humans pathogens than the bat,” my diplomatic complaint was published as an op-ed under the following title and subheading: “Stop Publishing Fake News About Bats. Yes, bats can transmit diseases—but you are extremely unlikely to be infected by one. Why fake news about bats is dangerous to their survival.”
When TheScientist published an article (2019) claiming that “Studying the genetic diversity and geographic distribution of bat-borne filoviruses is very important for risk assessment and outbreak prevention,” we provided a counterpoint response. It was published as an op-ed, titled “Opinion: Disease Prediction by Bat Virus Surveys is a Waste.”
Mongabay, a leader in conservation advocacy, annually reaches a readership of 28 million in nine languages. On April 27, 2016, they ran an article clearly intended to support bat conservation. However, the author was misled by prematurely published speculation linking bats to SARS and Ebola. We issued a Bat Flash, asking our members to politely call it to their editor’s attention. Mongabay’s editor investigated and agreed that disease threats had been overstated. They responded, “We have posted a corrected version to the story with a note acknowledging your role in bringing the error to light.”
In 2017 and 2018, while other media featured scary headlines and speculated that Nipah virus from fruit bats might spread to become a pandemic, Mongabay published a responsible headline, “Nipah infection in Kerala: Don’t blame the bats alone; improve public health.” Their report put the rare disease in perspective and cautioned against harming bats.
Last week, the editor of Science News agreed to change the title of their June 12 article, originally titled “Bats beat out dogs as the main cause of rabies deaths in the U.S.” After hearing from us, the editor changed the title to “Bats are the main cause of rare rabies deaths in the U.S.” It’s only a small victory, but we’ve sent a thank you, and now that they’ve been alerted, they’ll likely be tougher on misleading submissions in the future.
Vigilance and persistence are slowly but surely paying big dividends for bats. More and more editors, even virologists and epidemiologists, are beginning to question whether virus hunter claims that the billions of dollars spent on bat-centered virus searches are a wise investment in protecting public health.
Thank you, Bat Fans, for responding to Bat Flashes. Together we are making a difference!