During COVID-19 pandemonium, be sure to vet your sources for the right expertise

Eric Feigl-Ding

Eric Feigl-Ding

By now, just about every health reporter on the planet probably has written at least one story about the novel coronavirus or the disease it causes, COVID-19. With such a fast-moving story and an audience hungry for accurate information, there is a constant need for finding high-quality sources who can speak to precisely to your subject.

But not just any physician, epidemiologist or even infectious disease expert will do when you’re seeking interviews. These fields include many subspecialties, and the infectious disease expert who can discuss HIV transmission for hours is not going to be the right person to consult for a respiratory disease like COVID-19. Epidemiologists may specialize in everything from infectious disease to gun violence to nutrition to car accidents — but that doesn’t mean a gun violence or nutrition expert should be talking about coronaviruses.

For example, for my recent Forbes story about wearing masks, I specifically consulted an infection prevention specialist, but not just any “infectious disease expert.” When Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s infectious disease core topic leader, wrote her recent WebMD story on whether your pet can carry or transmit the coronavirus, she didn’t just call up her local veterinarian. Among her multiple sources was a director of global health at a veterinary school.

Most experts will be quick to tell you whether they are the right person to talk to; it’s in their own best professional interest to stay in their own academic/subspecialty lane. Unfortunately, there is the occasional person who will whip across five lanes to land on CNN or feed a hungry Twitter audience — even when they lack the relevant expertise to discuss a topic. The current outbreak has provided a perfect case study in what not to do when seeking an expert: Don’t go to the self-styled expert with no background in infectious disease just because they posted some inflammatory (and misleading) tweets or teach an adjunct course at Harvard.

As Alexis Madrigal discusses in an excellent story at The Atlantic, this is precisely how nutrition scientist Eric Feigl-Ding, Ph.D., ended up on the national media’s radar. After reading a non-peer-reviewed preprint about the virus, Feigl-Ding wrote in a now-deleted tweet, “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD—the new coronavirus is a 3.8!!! How bad is that reproductive R0 value? It is thermonuclear pandemic level bad—never seen an actual virality coefficient outside of Twitter in my entire career. I’m not exaggerating.” (In fact, many diseases have much higher R0s, such 12-18 for measles and pertussis.)

The problem is that Feigl-Ding has precisely zero experience in infectious diseases. He has an impressive list of publications in global disease burden and the epidemiology of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but nothing in infectious disease. Yet Feigl-Ding’s followers rapidly grew, from around 2,000 to now more than 109,000, as they voraciously consumed Feigl-Ding’s often misleading, inaccurate or exaggerated tweets. Soon Feigl-Ding was on CNN, identified as “Public Health Expert, Harvard University,” and on CGTN as a “scientist” at Harvard. Colleagues and other experts on Twitter who tried to correct Feigl-Ding were attacked, dismissed, blocked or ignored. Feigl-Ding is a public health expert, no doubt, and he is a visiting scientist at Harvard. But that doesn’t mean he’s remotely qualified to speak on an infectious disease outbreak. Relying on someone who appears authoritative but isn’t actually an expert in the topic is dangerous, as you risk communicating inaccurate or misleading information to an anxious public.

So, how do you make sure you’re reaching the right experts when covering an outbreak like this one, and how do you vet the self-styled experts on social media or in your email inbox to ensure they indeed are qualified to speak on the topic you’re writing about? I consulted two individuals who specialize in writing about infectious disease: Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University, and freelance journalist Maryn McKenna, an AHCJ board member.

Both Smith and McKenna said they start with PubMed or other literature searches, such as Google Scholar, to see who publishes in the specific area you need and how recently they’ve published in that area. They also check to see where else a potential source has been quoted and what they’re saying on social media — and how they’re saying it. Ideally, someone who falls between “non-descriptive and OMG” will be more helpful and reliable, McKenna said.

For McKenna’s and Smith’s in-depth suggestions, check out this new AHCJ tip sheet. Below is a summary of their key points:

  • To find folks, check PubMed keywords, Google Scholar keywords, Twitter hashtags about the topic you’re covering, and sites that expand the diversity of your sources, such as 500 Women Scientists and DiverseSources.
  • Check the institutional bio page of those you find and review their recent publications.
  • Look at how recent and frequent their publications are. Be sure their recent publications reflect expertise in the specific areas you’re covering. (They might have specialized in the topic you’re writing about 10 years ago but are no longer up to date.)
  • Look at their coauthors to see if you recognize any names. Coauthors may also become potential sources or offer clues about the research and how collaborative it is.
  • Google the sources you’re considering to see whether they already have been quoted, where, how often and what they’ve said.
  • Check their social media feeds, especially Twitter, to see what they’re publicly saying, how well they’re saying it, whether it’s accurate and how they’re responding to replies.
  • Avoid sources who use inflammatory language. Look for those who seem to fall between very dry and “WOW!”
  • To reduce the risk of bias, be cautious not to over-rely on the same sources you’ve frequently used in the past.
  • Consider avoiding sources who have already been very frequently quoted in stories if there are others you can contact instead (and there nearly always are).

One thought on “During COVID-19 pandemonium, be sure to vet your sources for the right expertise

  1. Avatar photoElizabeth Scherer

    100%. However, I think that it is important to consider how overwhelmed many of these top “correct” experts are at the moment. I’ve spent the past four days working my way through sources to score two interviews. One is scheduled for this morning but I’m still waiting on the second. While I agree with the strategy that both Smith and McKenna use, it’s important to consider plans ‘C’ and ‘D’ in times like these.

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