Diversifying health and science sources and covering the Black community and COVID-19

Tonya Russell

Spotlighting inequities in the U.S. health system and writing about the differences in health outcomes will remain a crucial part of health coverage in 2022. To help with that effort, the AHCJ has highlighted groups that have created databases and tip sheets for reporters looking to extend their health and science networks and find new sources. 

But some reporters are still having challenges finding diverse sources. Tonya Russell, a freelance journalist who has been writing about COVID-19 and the Black community, has some advice for them.

“Some people say that they struggle to find Black experts,” she wrote on Twitter. “I’ve never had this issue. I’ve recently talked to a sommelier, olive oil producer, winemaker, rancher and yacht captain. Dynamic Black folks exist. You just need to look and ask.”

I found her comment interesting, so I decided to call Russel to learn more.

Russell, an avid runner, explained that as the pandemic began, she turned to a group of fellow runners for story ideas and sources. Through her connections with the group, she tapped into a wealth of ideas and professional support, resulting in a successful freelance career — something she didn’t think was possible because freelancing wasn’t mentioned during her journalism program.

In this “How I did it,” Russel talks more about her approach to covering COVID-19, the Black community, freelancing and finding diverse sources.

What can journalists do better to cover the Black community and COVID-19?

Someone tweeted to me recently saying that they can’t find Black experts, but I’ve never had that issue. I think it’s about having conversations with the right people. If your network is diverse, then you shouldn’t have too much of a problem. If you’re struggling, then chances are you may need to expand your circles. I talked to a Black microbiologist recently and a Native American sleep specialist. When you expand your network and are willing to have conversations with people that you may not necessarily talk to, you’d be surprised how your worldview opens up and the kind of people that you get to meet.

What advice do you have for journalists looking to expand their networks but aren’t sure how?

There are many resources. For instance, I’m a member of the Running Industry Diversity Coalition and, I’ve received assignments from people within that network who recommended me. So, look for networking opportunities within your interests. I’m a Black woman of childbearing age, so I tend to socialize and associate with people who are kind of in that space too, and then I like running, so it’s a little bit more organic than just showing up at a meetup with a name tag.

You’ve written numerous stories over the past two years about Black women’s experiences during COVID-19. How did you get started writing about the pandemic?

Until the pandemic, I had a full-time job in social media for a public relations firm and then I got furloughed. I got frantic [about finding work] and started writing and pitching things. It was a strange time because a lot was going on with protesting and you know, the death of George Floyd and Arthur Green. I’m a runner and I am in a running group. There was a big divide as far as what people felt about what was happening, and so unique opportunities presented themselves. There were a lot of calls for writers of color at that time and honestly, I don’t know if half of the editors that I work with would have paid me attention [before the protests]. I’d been reaching out to some of them for months before the protesting started, and I wasn’t getting any answers and then I did and I would say: ‘Hey, well, glad to finally hear from you. I sent you a few pitches.’ Then they’re apologizing to me. I just started to say the things that needed to be heard and that is how I became a freelance journalist. 

On Twitter, you recently commented that sometimes your interviews are like a vibe session, where you both go on a journey. I like that approach. Could you talk more about how you do that? 

So, I start with a question that can be hit or miss. Sometimes this question annoys people. But I ask the person, even when I’ve done my research on them: “Tell me about yourself.” Or if I am interviewing somebody about a topic, like cancer, I ask them: ‘What’s your relationship to cancer?’ Often, I will find that person, instead of talking about their careers, will say: “I lost this person to cancer” or “I saw how my grandmother suffered and it made me want to do something about it” So it’s an opening to have a conversation a lot of times. I don’t like to talk about myself too much when I’m interviewing, but sometimes I do, and it just gets the conversation moving. I let people just kind of have the floor for five sometimes 10 minutes and then I get into the questions that I want to ask. Sometimes it’s the last few minutes where I get the best quotes.

Since you were new to the health beat, how did you get up to speed on covering COVID-19? How do you stay on top of your coverage? 

I have a pretty unique circle. I’m decent friends with an immunologist who has been fighting against the misinformation on social media, just like everybody else [and I’ve learned a lot from her.] I look for trends on social media to see if there is something worth exploring. And, of course, being in the Black community and the wellness space — I am a runner and vegan — I hear a lot of misinformation. So really, keeping up to speed with COVID starts for me with misinformation and things that I know are not right. Like people saying crazy things like vegans can’t get COVID and COVID isn’t severe. So, a lot of fighting against misinformation has forced me to stay up to date on COVID and the vaccine.

I know that trust is a big issue for people in the Black community and the broader public. Many people don’t know what publications and who to trust, so how did you know?

I know someone who has worked with the virus in a lab setting and that has been helpful. I have a [personal and professional] network that includes a lot of frontline health care workers who have battled COVID in the ICUs and worked on developing a vaccine. I’m very lucky to know quite a few knowledgeable folks. I also know that you have got to look at different sources. 

You can’t just look at one source and run with it. Some publications that I prefer not to name, have just focused on the fact that 99% of people are going to survive COVID. Okay, but what does that mean for those who have long-haul COVID and what does that mean for a black woman? I know that people in my community have been hit hard. My stepson nearly died of COVID at the beginning of February before we knew what it was. He spent over a month at the hospital in the ICU and has had COVID long haul since then. What is survival if somebody is disabled for the rest of their life?

You have been writing a series of stories for Shape magazine about the Black community experience and COVID-19. How do you find the people you feature in your stories?

Some of the people were right within my network, or I asked people in my network if they knew anyone I could speak with, or I put [a request] on Facebook or Twitter. 

Which scientific publications do you recommend? I ask because our members are always looking for new outlets to pitch to.

One example is Prevention magazine. And Prevention paid me pretty well. The story that I pitched to them, I had pitched to somewhere else and struggled to land it. It was a story about racism and cancer care. Prevention wanted it and I ended up making twice as much as I would have made if the first publication, I pitched it to had accepted it. My mentor also suggested pitching to smaller trade publications, and educational organizations. 

Let me ask you about COVID-19 vaccinations and hesitancy in the Black community. Is it hesitancy or lack of access? Are hesitancy and ongoing distrust with medical institutions the right focus of stories one year since vaccines became available?

I honestly think so. Because just in dealing with people I know who are still afraid to get the vaccine at this point. I think it’s [about] misinformation. For instance, on the Nation of Islam website, for a long time, they had a banner on their website discouraging people from getting the vaccine.

Why did the National of Islam say people shouldn’t get the vaccine?

I think it boils down to misinformation at this point [as to why vaccination has lagged in the Black community]. It pops up a lot in Black spaces. For example, I was on a Black-owned business page, and actually, that is a good place to find resources, like local Black-owned business pages or Facebook in your state or regionSo I was on a site and saw a woman was looking for a hairstylist that was vaccinated. In that comments section, there was a bunch of just nonsense, like [people who wrote]: “Why do you care about whether your stylist is vaccinated? She’s more likely to give you the virus because she vaccinated.” Or. “You know, one out of three people who get the vaccine will die of the vaccine.” So, I think it’s less about racism in medicine, [and I am not saying that there isn’t racism], but I think it is [more about] misinformation. 

Do you think the rise of omicron will change anything in terms of people maybe now being willing to get vaccinated? 

I think [the variant] is hurting [the vaccination argument] because the people who are already leery [about a vaccine] can’t live in gray areas. [They think] either the vaccine works or it doesn’t. And if you get COVID, then obviously [the vaccine is] not working. Those people are having a tough time accepting that they should still get vaccinated or get a booster. People are tired of social distancing. They’re tired of not being able to live their lives. I see it all the time. 

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