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.
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.
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.
February 2020 Al-hadji Kudra Maliro is the eastern Congo correspondent for the Associated Press and has contributed stories published in the Christian Science Monitor, Daily Mail, Le Monde, France 24, Yahoo and Stars and Stripes. He grew up in Beni, Congo, and Kampala, Uganda, and lives in Goma, a city of 2 million, close to the border of Rwanda. Goma is in the North Kivu region of the country, an epicenter of the outbreak and the site of ethnic and civil conflict.
Maliro has been covering the Ebola outbreak since September 2018. Since there are few journalists on the ground there, his perspective has played a role in shaping how the international community gets information about the ongoing outbreak. He frequently posts on his Twitter and Facebook page about stories he is covering and the people who he is with.
Here Maliro talks with AHCJ’s Bara Vaida about what it is like to be a local correspondent on this international story.
January 2020 Hookworm is a parasite transmitted to people through the feces of infected people. Symptoms can include itching, diarrhea, anemia and brain development problems in children. It infects as many as 740 million people a year, mostly in developing countries with poor sanitation and extreme poverty.
Before indoor plumbing, hookworm was prevalent in the southern United States. Successful efforts funded by John D. Rockefeller in the early 1900s led many to believe the parasite had been eliminated from the country by the 1980s. But a 2017 study cast doubt on that perception. Researchers found evidence that people living in Lowndes County, Ala., were infected by hookworm.
In 2018, Vice News reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross decided to follow up on the study and learn whether Alabama’s department of health had done anything about it. Shockingly, the answer was no. Here, Duhaime-Ross talks more about how she reported on this groundbreaking work.
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.
November 2019 A basic tenant in reporting is that there are two sides to a story, but in public health, that may not always be the case, says Melba Newsome, a Charlotte, N.C.-based freelance health care journalist.,
Newsome was confronted with this challenge when writing an in-depth story for CQ Researcher on the recent measles outbreak, and the story behind how the contagious disease has made a come back in the era of modern medicine. A big piece of the story is the spread of misleading information by organizations that exploit people’s fears about vaccines, and the role the media played by giving these organizations a voice in an effort to provide balance, she says.
Reporters, she says, should be more focused on the scientific evidence that shows vaccines are safe and effective, rather than giving voice to fears. To read more about her thoughts and how she reported her story on measles, read the edited interview with Newsome.
October 2019 Infectious diseases have altered the course of history since the beginning of time. Until humans really understood how they were transmitted, pathogens almost always had the upper hand. Many books have been written about how diseases like plague and the flu impacted the outcomes of wars and civilization, but few have focused specifically on the mosquito and malaria. Timothy Winegard, a history professor at Colorado Mesa University, changed that with his book, “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.” To learn more about his book, here is an edited interview with Winegard.
July 2019 Until about 20 years ago, the threat of antibiotic resistance remained muted because there were plenty of new antibiotics in the pipeline to replace those that had stopped working.
Today, there are fewer than 50 antimicrobials in the pipeline and resistant bacteria are slowly but surely spreading across the planet.
Getting the public to understand and pay attention, however, remains a challenge for health journalists. Matt Richtel, a science reporter for The New York Times decided to take on the task on of trying to get Americans to understand the growing threat with a series that began in April 2019.
Richtel talks to AHCJ’s Bara Vaida about how he approached the story and its challenges.
June 2019 Amy Maxmen, a San-Francisco-based science reporter for Nature magazine, travels the world to cover global health topics. In 2018, her work took her to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand to cover the rising number of malaria deaths in Southeast Asia.
Her story “Malaria’s Ticking Time Bomb,” won first place in AHCJ’s 2018 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism for a public health story published in the small market category. Here she talks further about how she did her story.
June 2019 Measles is one of the most infectious diseases on the planet. Just by breathing, someone with measles can spread the disease to 12 to 18 other people. The U.S. is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of measles since 1994 and one of the hardest hit communities has been New York City. As of mid-May, more than 500 cases have been reported to city public health officials.
Amanda Eisenberg, a New York health reporter for Politico, has been in the middle of covering this unfolding epidemic. She and her colleagues have not only been covering breaking news stories about the outbreak, but also have found different angles. Eisenberg talks more about how she is covering the measles outbreak there.
June 2019 Lois Parshley wrote an award-winning story for Scientific American about a collaboration to develop disease outbreak models linked to climate change. She traveled to South Africa to follow scientists as they gathered data on Rift Valley fever, a virus carried by mosquitoes that causes miscarriages and death in livestock and can sicken humans as well. The virus has been spreading along with the mosquitoes that carry it as the climate has warmed and global trade and travel have blossomed. Here Parshley explains further about why she traveled across the globe to tell this story and what it means for public health.
May 2019 Health and science writer Linda Marsa’s 2013 book, “Fevered: Why A Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health – And How We Can Save Ourselves,” focused on climate change and its impact on health. Still relevant, Marsa’s work remains one of the few focused on the topic and represents an underreported aspect of climate change stories.
Marsa looks at climate change through the lens of agriculture disruption, air pollution, the spread of infectious diseases, heat waves, health system disruption, water pollution and drought. She also examines a few successful policies that have been aimed at addressing the disruptions caused by the warming planet.
Marsa recently sat down to talk with AHCJ and provided some tips to help colleagues wishing to cover climate change and health.
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.
February 2019 Heather Boerner’s October 2018 piece at NPR examined the fate of people who live without treatment for their HIV after they leave prison. The piece was pinned to a study published in PLOS One showing that people with HIV often are lost to care once they leave the monitoring and services provided in prison.
In her article, in addition to providing an in-depth perspective from several experts, Boerner also gave the reader the story of Bryan C. Jones, who had left a prison in Ohio and almost immediately ditched his HIV drugs because he knew they were no longer working.
Boerner discusses how she identified Jones and was able to include his story in her piece. As journalists covering health know, finding someone living with the condition a story covers can be difficult. The additional factors of a background involving incarceration and a period of housing instability can complicate the process even more.
February 2019 The New Food Economy reporter Sam Bloch learned about many of the hidden stories about the nation’s food system from his girlfriend, who works at a restaurant.
One his beats is food recalls, which led him to his recent story highlighting the biggest food recall in 2018. The story was about McCain Foods, a multi-billion-dollar foodservice corporation, based in Ontario, which manufactures frozen foods. The story, which no one else had reported, puts a spotlight on how much of the food system is vulnerable to contamination.
He also recommends sources for other reporters and talks about why he thinks we are having so many food recalls.
January 2019 In early 2016, Beth Murphy set out to make a series of films focused on the impact of climate change on women and children as part of a multimedia GroundTruth Project series “Living Proof: The Human Impacts of Climate Change.”
What became clear during research is that the link between climate change and infectious disease is having serious consequences on maternal and infant health. There are a number of examples globally, but with the Zika crisis exploding in Puerto Rico at that time, she decided to focus her attention there.
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.
June 2018 This story started the way most good stories do, with a tip. Andy Miller heard about a woman in Georgia named Tamara Davis, who was facing thousands of dollars in medical bills because of a freak occurrence – she found a bat clinging to a dishtowel in her kitchen sink.
After interviewing her, he was struck by the details. Even though she didn’t think she’d been bitten, Davis owed more than $10,000 for shots. “Think about that,” Andy said on the phone. “These were injections, and this is her bill.”
There was an interesting twist to her story, too. Davis had to be in Florida once when she was due for one of her series of shots. In Florida, she learned that shots to prevent rabies were offered through a local health department and were free. But back in Georgia, she had to go to hospital ER where the shots were costing her thousands of dollars.
May 2018 Lynn Arditi, a health reporter with Rhode Island Public Radio, recently delved into the world of antibiotic resistant bacteria with a story, "Racing to Beat Superbugs: Study Shows Promise" about promising research that could result in a new class of antibiotics.
Arditi, who was a long-time print reporter at the Providence Journal before moving to radio last year, brings a whole new dimension to reporting on superbugs and laboratory work by adding sound to what could otherwise be a dry story about a report. Arditi talked more about how she did the story with Bara Vaida, AHCJ’s core topic leader on infectious diseases.
March 2018 Reporter Chris Dall, a reporter for CIDRAP News, wrote “To Save a Life, Doctors Turn to Bacteria-Killing Viruses,” which won third place in the 2017 AHCJ Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. (CIDRAP is the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.)
The story vividly illustrates a potential new avenue for treating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Here, Dall explains more about how he wrote the story.
February 2018 It's hard to believe that in 2018, a deadly vaccine-preventable disease that is most commonly spread through poor sanitation is taking American lives. But that's exactly what has happened over the past year. In September, Lauren Weber and Dana Liebelson reported the story on San Diego's unprecedented hepatitis A outbreak — where it has sickened 576 people to date and killed 20, most of whom were homeless or drug-users.
Now Weber explains how they discovered that separate outbreaks were happening across the country, from Michigan to New York — they just weren't getting national media attention. This was more than just a local malfeasance turned deadly; it was a broader trend nationally among homeless and drug-using populations.
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.
September 2017 Vaccines and antibiotic resistance are two hot topics in health news, but they’re not often part of the same story. A conversation with a pediatrician about how he talks to vaccine-hesitant parents sparked an idea for reporter Alice Callahan.
She took on the challenge of combining the two topics in a recent piece for FiveThirtyEight: “The Fight Against Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Might Start With Vaccines” – a piece she pitched to FiveThirtyEight at Health Journalism 2017& in Orlando in April, and it was published in August.
September 2017 Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture has led to a rise in the number of people infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria. In the U.S., about 2 million people annually are sickened by antibiotic resistance and 23,000 of them die. If nothing changes, more than 10 million people globally could die from antibiotic resistance bugs in 2050.
Award-winning journalist and AHCJ board member Maryn McKenna digs deep into this frightening trend with her new book “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.”