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Tip sheets

Coronaviruses: Background and sources for your reporting

Updated May 31, 2021
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses, some of which cause respiratory illness in humans.  On Jan. 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared 2019-nCoV, a coronavirus, a public health emergency of international concern and on March 11, declared it a pandemic. The last time it declared a pandemic was the swine flu in 2009.

Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s core topic leader on infectious diseases, has compiled links and contact information for sources on the topic, as well as useful background to inform your reporting. This tip sheet is  being updated as the story evolves.

More resources on variants for your COVID-19 reporting toolbox

May 4, 2021
Back in January, Bara Vaida, the AHCJ core topic leader for infectious disease, wrote a helpful post on resources for tracking COVID-19 variants. But in the age of COVID, data moves fast enough to give us constant whiplashes, and so much has changed since then. The most significant change is that the number of variants of concern — a term that not yet defined at the time of Vaida’s post — has grown to at least five.

Covering Vaccine Hesitancy

March 2021
When it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, Americans want to know more about safety and potential side-effects (including any possible long-term impact on fertility), as well as the logistics of getting their shot, according to a recent survey, according to a new survey.

Media research firm SmithGeiger conducted the survey, which was partially funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. It was shared first with AHCJ members during a March 17 webcast about potential story ideas for journalists covering the vaccine rollout and efforts by public health leaders to boost confidence in the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

Use these resources to background yourself on COVID-19 vaccine development

October 2020
Returning to a society where people can safely gather with friends, family and large crowds will take a combination of a vaccine and treatments to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The race to find a vaccine has spurred much media attention. As of mid-October, between 50 and 179 promising vaccine candidates were under study, with more than 50 having reached the human clinical trial stage.

Many of the studies and trials are taking place in the U.S. and are part of the White House’s Operation Warp Speed program. Many more are being conducted outside the country.

So what is political hype and what is real? Which vaccine candidates should reporters be paying attention to? How can they keep track of them and report findings responsibly to the public?

Here are some resources, expert sources and other tips to help you make sense of the COVID-19 vaccine race and report it responsibly.

Influenza resources updated for 2020-21 season and COVID-19

October 2020
Until 2020, most people tended to think of influenza as just a nuisance winter illness that might keep one in bed for a few days but this year, with COVID-19 still roiling the country, it needs to be considered more seriously by Americans.

The flu has always been a potentially deadly virus that attacks the lungs, like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. In 2019-2020 flu season, about 22,000 Americans died from the flu, and flu and pneumonia were among the top 10 causes of death in the U.S.

Flu season begins Oct. 1 and infectious disease physicians and public health officials are deeply concerned that Americans face exposure to two potentially deadly viruses – flu and SARS-CoV-2. They are urging all Americans over the age of 6 months to get a flu shot as soon as possible. Though the flu shot isn’t 100% effective, it reduces the likelihood by about 40% to 60% that a person who gets the flu won’t end up in the hospital.

Understanding the COVID-19 plasma treatment debate 

September 2020
By forcing the Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 23, 2020, to approve blood plasma as a COVID-19 treatment under an emergency use authorization (EUA), President Trump again inserted politics into scientific research ― a situation that may create even more uncertainty about plasma as a potential treatment.

Plasma ― the part of blood that contains antibodies and proteins ― is still under investigation for this use, and those leading randomized clinical trials now far they may have difficulty recruiting new patients due to the controversy.

Coronavirus is shaking up states’ coverage expansion plans

June 2020
Before the novel coronavirus pandemic, several states were looking at ways of expanding coverage – no matter what the outcome of the November election. But with the upheaval, uncertainty, and immense costs of coronavirus, much of it is on hold for now.

Here, I’ll highlight a few of the most notable states, including the status of Medicaid block grant requests.

Tips on covering mental health during the pandemic

June 2020
It will take a while to learn all the ways the pandemic has affected the nation’s collective and individual mental health. But there are resources journalists can use now to begin teasing it apart and reporting on it.

These tips and resources all relate to covering the pandemic’s mental health impact, whether it’s coming up with story ideas, best practices for mental health reporting or learning about what past medical research has shown about pandemics and mental health.

Prepare yourself before covering serology testing and other COVID-19 immunity issues

May 2020
Problems with PCR testing for the COVID-19 viral infection dominated headlines during the first six weeks of the pandemic. Now that serology testing — testing for antibodies to COVID-19 — is picking up steam, there is a lot of important context and uncertainty that your audience may need.

To begin this quick primer, here are some basic concepts to understand before interviewing experts in immunity and epidemiology.

Epidemiological models: 10 things journalists covering coronavirus research should know

May 2020
As COVID-19 infection and death rates have risen across our planet, thousands of new academic papers have flooded the internet, many of which are based on models. Most papers posted online and uploaded to preprint research servers have not been vetted by scholars. In fact, a small fraction have undergone formal peer review, a process by which experts in that particular field of study analyze and critique the paper and help guide revisions. This tip sheet, from Journalist's Resource, reached out to researchers and science writers to find out what key things reporters should know and how they can do a better job of explaining studies and their findings.

Tips on covering preprints about coronavirus research 

April 2020
Along with regular coverage of peer-reviewed medical research on COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, there has been a great deal of attention on preprints, which are complete drafts of research studies shared online before peer review. Journalists should be cautious when reporting on preprints and a tip sheet at Journalist’s Resource addresses six important factors to keep in mind when reporting on a study in this early format. Here is a summary of the key points.

Resources for reporting the impact of COVID-19 on older adults   

March 2020
We know that older adults and those with serious underlying medical conditions are among the most susceptible to complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have issued warnings to those in the 60-plus demographic to take special care to minimize their risk of contracting this disease. Many of those who have died lived in a Seattle-area nursing home. There are plenty of story angles and resources for reporters to tackle as cases continue to climb.  

Tips on finding and vetting experts during a disease outbreak   

March 2020
When covering a hot, fast-moving health issue like a disease outbreak, a severe weather event or other public health emergency, it can be a scramble to find the expert sources you need quickly. Still, it’s essential to ensure they are the right experts you need for the story you’re writing.

Emergency preparedness among U.S. hospitals a potential story for your community

August 2019
Public health emergencies happen. From a severe flu season or measles outbreaks to a massive wildfire or hurricane, count on them to be a mainstay of covering health. It can be helpful to understand how the government has tried to prepare for these types of incidents. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, national, state and local government entities have worked to build a better response infrastructure, such as maintaining a national strategic stockpile of medical supplies and drugs, and bolstering the number of health care providers for emergencies with the U.S. Public Health Service Corps and the Medical Reserve Corps.  

Debunking claims that immigrants bring infectious diseases to U.S.

December 2018
President Trump, along with immigration opponents, repeatedly assert that immigrants are bringing infectious diseases to the U.S., but never provide any data to back up their claims.

That is because virtually every public health expert says there isn’t any evidence that this is the case.

Resources for understanding Ebola and the ethics of covering outbreaks

June 2018
Outbreaks and infectious disease can be difficult topics to cover. Stories need to be informative, sensitive and scientifically sound – all without inducing panic. When there were several Ebola cases in the United States starting in 2014, it was easy to feed public fear with inflammatory media coverage. When covering the recent outbreaks, what can journalists learn from that experience to avoid incendiary coverage while still respecting the public’s right to know?

Here are resources, infectious disease experts to interview and websites with useful tips about reporting on Ebola, emerging infectious diseases and lessons learned.

Veteran journalist offers advice on covering disease outbreaks

February 2018
It is likely that flu won’t be the only outbreak in 2018. Over the past year, there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Brazil, plague in Madagascar, cholera in Yemen and measles in Minnesota. While no one knows what else might occur in 2018, there is likely to be another infectious disease outbreak somewhere in the world in the coming year.

Helen Branswell, a veteran health reporter who found herself in the middle of an epidemic in 2003, suggests reporters establish relationships with some public health contacts before an outbreak, to ensure quick access to reliable infectious disease experts.

Reporting on zoonotic diseases without inflaming panic

October 2017
The next big thing in global health doesn’t get much attention. Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, spread from vertebrate animals to human beings from viruses, bacteria, fungi, or other communicable agents, and scientists estimate 75 percent of new emerging infectious diseases will be zoonotic in origin. Humans and animals have a close relationship on an increasingly crowded planet, and this means zoonoses will be the diseases to watch in the near future.

But most people haven’t heard of zoonotic diseases, and most journalists haven’t covered them. In fact, these infectious diseases rarely make headlines or the nightly news until human-to-human transmission reaches potential pandemic proportions.

Watching - and covering - emerging diseases

October 2017
Ever wonder which emerging diseases to watch? You’re not alone. Even for scientists, it’s difficult to tell which disease will be the next Ebola, or when it will happen. Many dangerous outbreaks in recent years have been both zoonotic and viral, so animal-borne viruses are a good place to look for the next one. Many diseases on this list are also zoonoses (see this tip sheet on understanding zoonoses) and caused by viruses, and all are emerging infectious diseases – or else they have the potential to re-emerge in the near future.  

Pandemic threat: Is the world ready for another outbreak?

June 2017
In a 24-page report for CQ Researcher, Bara Vaida examines how the Ebola and Zika outbreaks illustrated clear gaps in preparedness and what the globe has been doing to respond. She also addresses the issue of bioterrorism and whether the U.S. is prepared for a biological attack. 

The in-depth paper looks at the background of infectious diseases as well as emerging threats, leadership and collaboration in th global health community and predictions about the next pandemic. An extensive bibliography and related reading list offer a guide to sources for reporters. CQ Researcher has granted access to this report for AHCJ members. 

Resources for covering H1N1 flu, pandemics and preparedness

April 2009
As journalists may be preparing to cover the outbreak of H1N1, also known as swine flu, that has been identified in Mexico and the United States, AHCJ has a number of resources to offer. In addition, we have gathered links to other organizations, relevant hearings and press briefings and some expert sources.

Press lessons from the 1918 pandemic flu

April 2007
Excerpts from "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History," by John M. Barry, that were reprinted in the Spring 2007 issue of Nieman Reports as part of a report about "The Next Big (Health) Crisis - And How to Cover It," a conference cosponsored by AHCJ at the Nieman Foundation.

Avian flu: Communicating news of an outbreak

April 2007
Edited excerpts from a lengthy transcript from "The Next Big (Health) Crisis - And How to Cover It," a conference cosponsored by AHCJ at the Nieman Foundation.

Pandemic influenza: Planning and coordinating the response

March 2006
From a panel on preparing your community for pandemics at Health Journalism 2006. Georges Benjamin, American Public Health Association.

Pandemic/avian influenza: Epidemiology and challenges

March 2006
Presentation from Luis Ostrosky-Zeichner, M.D., FACP, of the University of Texas. 

Preparing your community for pandemics

March 2006
Herminia Palacio of the Harris County (Texas) Department of Public Health and Environmental Services offers background and information about local planning efforts for a pandemic.