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How I did it

Learn from these journalists how they have covered various aspects of infectious diseases. They provide valuable tips and sources and explain how they got past the challenges to better inform their audiences.

Reporter digs for the details to convey deeper insights to readers during pandemic

Jessica Contrera

January 2021
Telling the deeply reported feature stories about COVID-19 and the impact on Americans is both more important and more challenging than ever. But doing these stories usually involves spending dozens of hours with sources in person, something journalists won’t be able to do for many months to come. So how can we report them? The Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera, who wrote a series of features in 2020, has some ideas.

Here Contrera talks about how the stories evolved, how her reporting changed and how she adapted her work approach to painting detailed and memorable stories about COVID-19. She also gives some advice on how other journalists can tell these stories in their communities too.

Staff writer talks about covering COVID, responding to anti-science sentiment

Dana Smith

December 2020
Just a few months after Dana Smith became’s only staff writer on health and wellness, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, turning Smith’s plans for writing in-depth stories on health and wellness upside down. She quickly became an infectious disease specialist focused on COVID-19 and has been helping everyone understand the unfolding story this year with her deeply reported stories about testing, vaccines and how the immune system works.

Here Smith talks more about her journalism journey this year and advice for colleagues on how journalists can respond to anti-science sentiment and COVID-19 disbelievers.

‘Question everything:’ 3 tips for covering health when you usually don’t

November 2020
When reporting on the evolving pandemic, skepticism is crucial, says Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter at The New York Times.

Official guidance and scientific consensus will inevitably shift, challenging journalists to provide new context and transparency in their coverage.  

We reached out to Mandavilli to learn how journalists can cover unfolding pandemic stories, even when health reporting is not normally their beat. 

How one Poynter veteran helps journalists generate fresh pitches about COVID-19

Al Tompkins

September 2020
Journalists are drowning in deadlines and information overload with this pandemic. So how are they to keep up with enterprise stories to put this moment into context? One place to look is Al Tompkins’ daily email for journalists. Each morning, Tompkins, who is a senior faculty member at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, publishes a free email for reporters, packed with COVID-19 story ideas and angles.

To write it, Tompkins draws upon his 30 years in broadcast and investigative journalism, as well as his previous experience authoring Poynter’s (now discontinued) morning general news email called “Al’s Morning Meeting.”

In this Q & A, Tompkins talks more about his COVID-19 daily email, how he finds story ideas and his thoughts on how the pandemic could change journalism.

How a tip exposed serious flaws in rapidly testing nursing home residents for COVID-19  

September 2020
Kaiser Health News’ Rachana Pradhan recently reported on the real and potential glitches with so-called rapid antigen testing for nursing home residents and staff.

While the administration is touting them as a quick way to identify asymptomatic carriers, Pradhan found out that’s not exactly how they’re supposed to work. 

Pradhan’s piece offers journalists some excellent ideas for questions to ask of both nursing home administrators and public health officials — from exactly which tests they use on residents and staff to their experience with positivity rates. 

Journalist describes role in helping compile, publicize national data on COVID-19   

Betsy Ladyzhets

September 2020
Among the many challenges in covering COVID-19 has been the federal government’s lack of public standardized data on testing, hospitalizations and deaths. Several private organizations and journalists have worked to fill the void. One of the largest efforts has been the COVID-19 Tracking Project, a volunteer project.

Betsy Ladyzhets, a freelance writer and New York City-based research associate at Stacker, is one of the many journalists volunteering time at the project. She recently launched the COVID-19 Data Dispatch newsletter to put data about the pandemic into a better context for friends, family, media and the public. Here she discusses why she launched the newsletter and gives advice to journalists on obtaining and using COVID-19 data.

Carving out your piece of the pandemic story can require persistence and ingenuity

July 2020
When President Trump declared in March that the generic antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was a “game-changer” in the battle against COVID-19 and would be available “immediately” to treat patients, Katherine Eban, like many health journalists, was skeptical. The author and investigative journalist has written extensively about fraud in the generic drug industry, so she was concerned.

Investigating conspiracy theories a growing part of COVID-19 coverage

May 2020
As misinformation about COVID-19 continues to proliferate in the digital world, journalists are challenged more than ever to debunk falsehoods and get accurate information to the public.

Marshall Allen, an investigative reporter at ProPublica, took on that challenge after some friends on Facebook and his brother, who is a pastor in Colorado, asked him what he thought about the trailer for the conspiracy theory documentary “Plandemic” began to be widely shared in early May.

Journalist finds lessons in the history of pandemics

April 2020
As the COVID-19 outbreak shows, infectious diseases consistently rear their head and disrupt human activities. Sometimes these outbreaks change the course of world power and other times, they become a blip on history’s timeline.

For some context about the history of infectious diseases and their impact on humans, it's worth taking a look at Beth Skwarecki’s book “Outbreak: 50 Tales of Epidemics that Terrorized the World.” Each chapter is about 1,000 words and deftly and succinctly tells interesting tales about infectious disease outbreaks, many of which continue to plague the world.

Here’s an edited Q&A with Skwarecki, who is the senior health editor of Lifehacker, about her book and some obstacles that she overcame.

Global reporting in the age of coronavirus

March 2020
The coronavirus pandemic has altered our world with whiplashing speed. It is reshaping health journalism for months, or perhaps years, to come.

Michele Cohen Marill's awakening to this reality came from an overseas reporting trip, just as the global dynamic of COVID-19 was shifting.


Editor shares tips for reporting on China's mysterious pneumonia

Lisa Schnirring

January 2020
On Dec. 31, 2019, a local health department in China reported a mysterious pneumonia had sickened dozens of people, setting off alarm bells within infectious disease circles. The fear is that this illness may be the beginning of a large deadly disease outbreak like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003.

Lisa Schnirring, news editor at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy since 2007, has been covering this story as it has been unfolding. 

Schnirring talked with AHCJ about how she has been keeping up with the news at it has been unfolding over the past few weeks, providing a valuable guide to other journalists who might be looking for resources to cover infectious disease outbreaks.

Science background helped student journalist’s reporting on predicting infectious disease outbreaks

Prajalta Dhapte

May 2019
Big data
offers the promise that researchers can develop effective predictive models of infectious disease outbreaks, enabling public health leaders to better allocate resources to prevent and respond to outbreaks.

Scientist and journalism student Prajakta Dhapte became fascinated with this predictive process and decided to delve into the modeling arena for a story published in Georgia Health News.

See what she learned in this Q&A with Bara Vaida.

Persistence, persuasion pays off with critical global health security story

January 2019
New York Times reporter Emily Baumgaertner got started in health news while working on a graduate degree in public health. During her studies, she realized she was interested in people’s stories, and began freelancing about global health for media outlets. The work led her to the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Times, where she juggles covering breaking news, as well as global health topics.

Last summer she broke an important global health security story related to a dangerous flu circulating among poultry farms in China. It is a story she is continuing to report. Recently, she shared with AHCJ why she pursued the ongoing story and how she got it.

How one U.S.-based reporter shines a light on infectious diseases thousands of miles away

Lauren Weber

October 2018
HuffPost’s Lauren Weber, a public health reporter who covers infectious diseases, has reported on everything from the flu to tuberculosis. More recently, she’s been covering the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo with great depth and detail.

Weber shared with AHCJ how she has been reporting on the outbreak from thousands of miles away from where it is occurring and provides tips on how other reporters can cover similar stories. She also discussed how she reports on infectious diseases as a daily beat for a national news organization.

Journalist-author provides insights on covering the next infectious disease outbreak

Lara Salahi

October 2018
Health journalist and author Lara Salahi partnered with scientist Pardis Sabeti to write about the devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and define the phenomenon of “outbreak culture” in their book, “Outbreak Culture: The Ebola Crisis And the Next Epidemic.” 

At the end of their book, Salahi and Sabeti offer some concrete ideas to help the world can better navigate the next infectious disease outbreak. In an interview with AHCJ, Salahi discusses how she came to write the book and gives advice for journalists covering infectious disease issues.

Giving an emotional arc to pandemic preparedness story

Ed Yong

September 2018
To illustrate the state of America’s health security, Ed Yong, staff writer for The Atlantic, wrote, “The Next Plague is Coming. Is America Ready?” for its July/August 2018 issue.

The picture Yong paints is of an America that is both prepared and unprepared for a devastating infectious disease outbreak.

In this Q&A, Yong discusses the article’s inspiration, how he created an emotional arc to the story and the challenges he faced in writing it. He also talks about stories he wished he’d had an opportunity to cover and what other journalists might want to consider writing about themselves.

Author reflects on writing a book about vaccines, medical research

February 2018
In 2017, D.C.-based Science writer Meredith Wadman published her first book, “The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease.” The fascinating book profiles key vaccine researchers, including Leonard Hayflick and Stanley Plotkin. It tells the story of how vaccines for diseases such as rubella and rabies were created and how the research led to an understanding of how and why humans age. The book also takes an unflinching look at the dark side of medical research, including the use of vulnerable populations for vaccine clinical trials, before the U.S. developed patient consent laws. In this Q&A Wadman talks about the process of writing her book and tips for journalists who want to write a book too.

How a fellowship led to a series on global emerging infections

Mark Johnson

December 2017
Mark Johnson, a health and science writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was looking for an idea to pitch in 2015 to the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism when he got a call from a public relations source at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The story was about a professor of epidemiology’s three-year quest to learn what in 2012 had killed a popular 5-year-old Milwaukee County Zoo orangutan named Mahal. Affection for the orangutan, plus concern that other zoo animals also might be in danger, led the zoo to send the animal’s body to the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine for an investigation lead by Tony Goldberg, a professor of pathobiological sciences. After three years of work, Goldberg determined Mahal had died from a new species of tapeworm previously only found in Finland and Japan.

Reporter shares tips for covering pandemic preparedness

October 2017
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, a billionaire philanthropist who has been working to eradicate infectious diseases through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, warned the global health community in February 2017 that he believes there is a “reasonable possibility” there will be a pandemic in the near future and world leaders must do more to prepare.

Freelance journalist Bryan Walsh explored pandemic preparedness in a May 15, 2017, article “The World Is Not Ready For The Next Pandemic,” for Time magazine.