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.
March 31, 2021 Throughout the pandemic, the non-partisan fact-checking website PolitiFact has sought to correct misinformation about the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Their work has become more important than ever as alarm has grown over the potential impact of COVID-19 misinformation. Efforts to end the pandemic through vaccination could stall if too many people refuse to take the vaccine because they don’t have enough facts to make an informed decision.
Here, PolitiFact staff writer Daniel Funke (@dpfunke) discusses his work and advice for other journalists seeking to get the facts out to the public and alert them to misinformation.
March 18, 2021 Like many reporters at the beginning of 2020, science writer Stephani Sutherland didn’t have a background in infectious diseases. When the pandemic was declared, she had to quickly shift gears and use her background as a neuroscientist to cover the topic of COVID-19 “long-haulers,” people who have technically recovered from COVID-19 but still have symptoms. Her research led to three stories in Scientific American magazine explaining what is understood about why people lose their sense of smell and experience neurological difficulties like “brain fog.”
Here she talks with AHCJ about how she made the pivot to a new reporting specialty and how she has been finding new stories during the pandemic.
Multigenerational households, which can span grandparents down to grandchildren, are common in communities of color, immigrant communities and low-income families. Millions of people in these households face a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus because they often include not only the elderly but also essential workers who can’t work from home. Once COVID-19 enters a larger household, it routinely and quickly infects everyone in it.
These issues received a lot of attention in the earlier stages of the pandemic last year. Many media outlets published stories about several generations living under the same roof and the potential dangers of contracting the coronavirus. A good number in these homes contain essential workers with jobs that put them at risk of infection. But as the vaccine rollout began, most states didn’t adopt policies that prioritized these households. Our story explored this gap as we analyzed county-by-county data showing that people of color — who are at greater risk of contracting the virus — are more likely to live in the same home with older relatives. This became the foundation of this story. We tried to answer this question: did state officials consider the family structures and population health issues common among people of color?
February 2021 With news emerging that genetic variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have emerged globally, journalists with a deep background in genetics are in more demand.
Independent journalist Marla Broadfoot has a doctorate in genetics and molecular biology and is one of those writers well-positioned to be writing about this topic. In a recent interview for AHCJ, she talks about her coverage of COVID-19 over the past year for Scientific American and gives advice to reporters who write about the complicated topic of genetics.
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.
December 2020 Just a few months after Dana Smith became Medium.com’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.