Sometimes all we need is a quick suggestion from our peers to zero in on a good story. Here we turn to front-line journalists for advice, some simple insight to add to our repository of “shared wisdom.”
What best practices are you following in covering preprints during the pandemic?
I've always sought independent comment on the preprint studies that I've considered covering, but I feel that this pandemic has made me much more vigilant about ensuring the quality of preprints that I report on. These studies that have not undergone a formal vetting by other scientists for the quality of their design and results: so, for starters, asking other researchers to comment on the quality of the methodology of the paper can be very informative. Context is very important when mentioning preprints in stories. I try to give readers a sense of what other papers in the same field have found and whether those conclusions are in line with the preprint findings.
During this pandemic, there’s been an even bigger push to get stories out fast, and some coronavirus sources have been more difficult to reach because they have been so busy — I’ve had to work harder as a reporter because of this. But it’s important not to get swept up in a preprint and run with it without vetting it properly. We shouldn’t let journalistic standards become another victim of this pandemic.
Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter at @rkhamsi.
As a journalist, how do you communicate changing understandings, predictions and recommendations without undermining your credibility?
This is one of the hardest parts about covering science as a journalist — explaining again and again that it's an iterative, self-correcting process, and that even when everybody does everything right, some findings won't hold up over time (not to mention fraud, p-hacking, file drawer effect, etc.).
I think it can be respectful to readers and can defuse some frustration and confusion if we say more explicitly: what researchers do know today, why that's different from what they thought yesterday, and what they still don't know and hope to find out tomorrow.
Laura Helmuth is the new editor-in-chief at Scientific American after leaving her position as health, science & environment editor at The Washington Post. She previously edited at National Geographic, Slate, Smithsonian and Science and was President of the National Association of Science Writers from 2016 to 2018. Follow her @laurahelmuth.
Any advice for journalists about what we do about media literacy and debunking conspiracy theories in this era of COVID-19?
We can't assume that our audience understands anything about what we do as journalists. This is interesting to me as a Christian, with friends and family who are skeptical of the media. They don’t really understand what we do. They are immediately biased against news, because they think we are politically minded. I don’t know why they think that, but I can suspect why. They don't understand the level journalists go through to be very careful. To be fair and to fact check. The general public doesn't understand what we do either. So maybe we need to be more explicit and provide more clarity about how we do what we do, and the lengths that we go through to be careful. We can't assume that they know that.
Marshall Allen is an investigative health care reporter for ProPublica. Allen’s work has been honored with several journalism awards, including the Harvard Kennedy School’s 2011 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting at the Las Vegas Sun, where he worked before coming to ProPublica in 2011. Before he was in journalism, Allen spent five years in full-time ministry, including three years in Nairobi, Kenya. He has a master’s degree in theology.
What is your sense of the U.S.’s preparedness in general for a pandemic or a bioterrorism attack? There have been many stories questioning whether the Trump administration has made this a priority.
I think that for some infectious disease scientists, there is solace in this administration’s focus on security and national security. This president has openly said that biological security is a priority. It was encouraging to many people that the administration released a National Biosecurity Strategy in September 2018.
At the same time, other global health professionals are worried that the administration’s America First approach is going to crush any chance of preparedness, since so much of this requires operating with an understanding of globalization. They believe the administration also generally has a poor concept of why policy needs to be based on scientific evidence. Travel bans are proven to worsen infectious outbreaks, for example.
Emily Baumgaertner works in The New York Times's Washington bureau, helping chase down presidential hires, fires, tweets and lawsuits. She has a master of public health degree and reports on health security and bio-defense in her spare time. She previously worked for the Pulitzer Center and reported from sub-Saharan Africa for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Scientific American and others. Follow her on Twitter: @Emily_Baum.
How do you cope with the information fatigue during the COVID-19 pandemic and decide on what you’ll focus on in your coverage?
When I work on a story about COVID-19, I zero in on the information I need for that story rather than trying to vacuum up everything on Twitter with a COVID-19 hashtag. That sort of unfiltered intake leads to bad reporting, because you lose your focus.
I would say to everyone that they should employ good information hygiene. Don't feel like you have to spend an extra four hours every day (or very late at night) reading rumors that won't do you any additional good.
How are you finding diverse sources and avoiding using the same people again and again for your coronavirus/COVID-19 stories?
Most of my stories are different enough, so I don't run into re-using experts. One trick I've used is, if I interview a source for a particular story, I'll reach out to them again for a separate story and see if there are other folks they would recommend me to talk to. They're always paying it forward, in some way. And I always make it clear that I'd love to speak with women or people of color.
Wudan Yan is an independent journalist in Seattle who has been covering coronavirus for Huffington Post, MIT Tech Review, The New York Times, Science and more. Follow her @wudanyan and see her coronavirus reporting here.
As a writer who has looked into history, what advice do you have for journalists covering this current coronavirus outbreak?
It is interesting. The more we learn, the more we make some of the same mistakes. So for example, with quarantines, throughout history, when a disease breaks out and there is a quarantine, everyone wants to get out of that city or place and then [as they leave, they] spread it outside of that place. We have clear evidence that quarantines don’t always work the way we hope they will.
The other lesson is that there is always class stratification in outbreaks. People want to blame poor people for the outbreak. Those with less income are already at a disadvantage and they are extra screwed over when these kinds of things happen, and that should be written about.
Everyone wants to protect themselves and other people get thrown under the bus. So, we should be reporting on how are people reacting? And how do we want to react? What are the unintended consequences of blaming others? It will be important to write about how this is playing out.
Beth Skwarecki is the senior health editor at Lifehacker and has been writing about health and science for over a decade. Her book, “Outbreak: 50 Tales of Epidemics that Terrorized the World,” is worth taking a look at some context about the history of infectious diseases and their impact on humans. Her other book is "Genetics 101."
Why is it important to be sure the person you use as a source has the knowledge, experience, training, etc. in the specific topic area you're writing about as opposed to a generalist?
When it comes to ensuring someone has expertise specifically in the area I need, it depends on the topic how I assess whether they have the knowledge and experience necessary. For example, almost any epidemiologist could comment on some things, such as the basics of study design or general types of bias, that run through the general epidemiology curriculum. But we have our own niches and specialties just like any other field. Asking someone to comment on an area that’s outside of their particular niche runs the risk of interviewing someone with only a superficial understanding of the topic.
They might still be able to address it, but they’ll likely lack the depth to be able to put new findings into context or discuss the history of a particular area and how any new information changes the field. They might not know how well a new publication or research finding is accepted by others in the field, or whether it’s controversial and contradicts other published literature. They might not know if the group or person doing the research is reputable or has a history of poor studies or paper retractions.
You’re just opening yourself up to unforced errors if you choose an interviewee without solid knowledge of the niche you’re writing about.
When a fast-moving, high-profile public health story is unfolding, what do you do to ensure the experts you interview are appropriately qualified for the topic?
In general terms, when I am looking for story sources, I go to PubMed and try as many keywords as I can think of to see what pops up. Then I look for how frequent, how recent, and who the co-authors are — are they names I recognize? I will also look at their faculty pages.
It’s important to take some time to do this, even in a fast-breaking story. Hypothetical example: If the CDC comes out with startling news about a “vectorborne” disease, you had better do enough of a read on your results to separate the mosquito people from the tick people, and the human disease people from the animal people, or you will waste a lot of time emailing.
I also Google to see whether those people have been interviewed, and also, whether they have been interviewed too much — I don’t want to be their 1000th interview, and I don’t want to be copy/pasting what they have said elsewhere.
As a reporter who specializes in emerging infections and outbreaks, I feel a special responsibility to avoid showcasing inflammatory language — it’s click-attracting but I think it is harmful to our mission of informing the public. (Sorry, traffic gods.) So when I Google to see whether and how much possible sources have spoken, I am also looking for the quality of their expression. On a spectrum of not-descriptive to OMG, I try to pick people who land in the middle.
Maryn McKenna is a freelance journalist who covers public health, global health and food policy. She is @marynmck on Twitter.
What can journalists do to prepare for covering a public health emergency?
In your down time, take your community health department’s public information officer out to coffee to get a sense of that [person] … If [you are] thrown into the middle of the story, then you probably [will] need to rely on the PIO more than you ideally want to … Most PIOs in government [health] agencies, … and academia … see themselves as almost journalists. They want accurate stories, and most good PIOs are not going to be hiding the truth … or spinning. I’m not saying don’t be skeptical, but … you should take advantage of PIOs who know their stuff.… In many instances, you have PIOs with journalism backgrounds or scientific experience – or both. That kind of PIO can be a great resource, and it’s worth knowing whether you are speaking with one of those or someone who is merely a political appointee or public relations person.
Also try to find out how the politics of your community might come into play if there is an emergency. Ideally, emergency responses avoid politics, but we rarely see the ideal.
Doug Levy is author of the book “The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts." He covered science, health, and technology for USA Today during most of the 1990s and was chief communications officer at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and director of communications at the UCSF School of Medicine. He advises police, fire, public health and other organizations on how to communicate with their communities better and faster.
What would be some of your lessons learned and your advice to other reporters who may be covering an outbreak, whether it be measles or another disease?
As of mid-May, more than 500 cases of measles have been reported to New York City public health officials. Amanda Eisenberg, a New York health reporter for Politico, has been in the middle of covering this unfolding epidemic, which represents the worst measles outbreak in decades. She offers some advice for reporters who are covering the measles outbreak.
Distinguish your reporting and find a way to take this to a new angle.
My colleague said: “We have an outbreak. What are other ways that you can think about to cover this story?” So I wrote about how hospitals are adding extra measures to ensure immune-compromised people are not exposed to measles on site, which could be deadly.
What were [hospitals] doing with those patients that were immune-compromised? How are they making sure a measles outbreak doesn’t happen in their hospital. How do they make sure measles isn’t spread at a hospital? In Rockland County, there was an exposure site at a hospital. Someone was waiting in the emergency room with measles. We got good traction on our story about that and how that hospital made sure that measles wasn’t being spread there. [Write about the fact that] there will be more vulnerable people caught up in this [outbreak] and [about writing about] more than just, this is the latest on the measles count.
I suggest that anyone who cares about [outbreaks] get better at data scrubbing and what an outbreak of measles looks like for a community. I wrote a story about 400 schools in the state that had high rates of religious exemptions for vaccinations. The schools spanned from teaching Muslim children to special needs children. It’s not just the Orthodox [Jewish] community that has low vaccination rates. So if you can look at data for an outbreak, then you can find stories out of that. Pay attention to vulnerable populations. They are important. They are the ones who can get the most sick, like kids going through chemotherapy.
Amanda Eisenberg is a health care reporter for Politico New York. She also writes Politico New York Health Care, an early-morning email that breaks down the day’s news for health-industry insiders. Eisenberg holds a journalism degree from the University of Maryland and a deep resentment for her favorite football team, the New York Jets.
If a reporter is looking to cover an aspect of pandemic preparedness that hasn’t been written about before, what would you recommend?
There are a lot of hospitals [throughout the U.S.] that have bio containment units and that do regular training [for pandemic preparedness.] They do mystery patient drills. I wanted to see one of those [for my recent story on pandemic preparedness], but I never quite managed to do that. There is something called CLADE X [a pandemic tabletop exercise, sponsored by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health] that I would have included [in my piece] if I could have. I think every bit of reporting that people do on this, whether it is in a big magazine story or week by week beat stuff, it all matters it all adds up. These are issues that need to be grappled with and they aren’t easy.
Ed Yong is a science journalist who reports for The Atlantic, and is based in Washington D.C. His work has featured in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, and many more. He has won a variety of awards, including the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award for biomedical reporting, the Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences, and the National Academies Keck Science Communication Award. "I Contain Multitudes,", his first book, was a New York Times bestseller, and a clue on Jeopardy! He has a Chatham Island black robin named after him.
Why should you pay attention to infectious disease threats among hospital workers?
Medically fragile and immune-suppressed patients spend a lot of time in the hospital, where they face an additional threat of getting a hospital-acquired infection. But when it comes to tracking the emergence and spread of diseases, the nurses and other professionals who care for them may actually be the “canaries in the coal mine.” While health care workers take precautions to prevent transmission, they sometimes become infected and their own illnesses can reveal important information about emerging diseases.
For example, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was primarily a threat in hospitals before it emerged in the community, and even today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is wrestling with how to handle health care workers who are either infected or colonized with MRSA. (Health care workers can carry the organisms without having any symptoms.)
The epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed 1,707 health care workers worldwide in 2002 and 2003 — which represented about one in five deaths from the disease overall. More recently, hospital workers have become infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), a disease that is not easily transmissible. The World Health Organization plans to vaccinate at-risk health care workers in Africa with the experimental Ebola vaccine.
Occupational medicine physicians treat work-related injuries and illnesses, and every major hospital will have an occupational medicine physician. You can tap into their network.
Michele Cohen Marill (www.michelemarill.com) is an Atlanta-based health and medical writer. She is a contributing editor for Atlanta magazine and has been published in Stat, Nature Medicine, Proto, WebMD magazine, and AARP online, among other publications. She was previously editor of Hospital Employee Health, a newsletter for employee health professionals in hospitals.
What advice do you have for journalists covering emerging diseases?
Word choice matters, especially when it comes to covering a deadly disease.
You may hear health professionals use the terms “infectious” and “contagious” interchangeably. That is adequate in many instances. However, minor differences between the two terms may play a role in which one you decide to use in a story. Contagious means a bacteria or virus can be transmitted from person to person (a communicable disease), and is quantified by R-nought, a mathematical construct that predicts the number of people a contagious individual will infect.
Infectious refers to how many bacteria, virus, or other pathogens are needed to infect an exposed individual. Ebola, for example, is not terribly contagious, but it is dangerously infectious. This matters in determining a person’s risk of contracting a disease.
Also be careful with the words “quarantine” and “isolation.” They both refer to separation, but are for different purposes. For example, people who are already infected with Ebola would be isolated, while quarantine is for those who have been exposed and may become sick, but aren’t sick yet.
Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) was a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.