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.”
You have been writing about COVID-19’s impact on prisons. What are the best resources for data when writing about prisons and COVID-19?
A good resource is The Sentencing Project, because they do all these reports. Sometimes universities do good research, like UCLA has done some research on COVID-19 and facilities [called the COVID behind bars data project]. NYU is doing good research through its fighting COVID behind bars project. The Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics has data [but] release their data very slowly. With anything to do with incarceration, data is pretty hard to come by… I've had to file a lot of Freedom of Information Act [requests] for a lot of this work. Otherwise, I don't often get information.
Lisa Armstrong is a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and an award-winning journalist. She is reporting on incarceration and has had grants from Type Investigations, The Carter Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism/Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism to support her work. She has written about the spread of COVID-19 in New York State prisons and Miami jails and produced a documentary for CBS News about the role that mental health care provided by for-profit companies has played in an increase in suicides in state prisons. Armstrong was a 2020-2021 Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow, 2019 United States Artists Fellow in Writing and a 2018 Justice Reporting Fellow for the John Jay/Langeloth Foundation Fellowship on Reinventing Solitary Confinement.
Now that we are moving beyond COVID-19, what are the science stories for reporters to be thinking about and writing about?
Well, I think COVID-19 is going to be with us for a long time – that story is not going to end anytime soon, though it will continue to shift. But as for what non-COVID stories are essential … there are so many! In the health realm, the opioid epidemic continues to be a major story. That was a looming health crisis in the country before COVID came along, and it still is. Environmental health issues — by which I mean the social justice side as well as more technical science questions — are going to continue to be a huge area, increasingly so as we see the increasing toll of the climate emergency. There is also inexhaustible interest in personalized medicine, genetic testing and the microbiome. I also think the pandemic has underscored the importance of investigative reporting on how health science and health policy intersect. Finally, though obviously we could just enumerate important health and science stories all day long, I can’t stress enough the importance of stories that critically examine the role of systemic racism on the health of Black people and other communities of color.
Siri Carpenter is an award-winning science journalist and editor whose writing and editorial work has appeared in The New York Times, Science, Discover, Scientific American, Science News, and many other publications. Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the non-profit journalism organization The Open Notebook, and is the editor of The Craft of Science Writing. She's a past president of the National Association of Science Writers (2018-2020). She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
How do you debunk a false statement and misinformation without amplifying it?
There is no easy answer. Generally, PolitiFact (a non-partisan fact-checking website) uses the “tipping point criterion.” Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft (a non-profit focused on researching and addressing misinformation), says to look for when a narrative or a claim has gone beyond a small set of people and broken into the mainstream. We are always looking into claims that are not only wrong but also have the potential to misinform a broad swath of the public. We look at how many shares a post with false information has and who said it. We also think about what is in the news and the potential for misinformation. We want to pre-bunk things before they become bigger narratives. And we remain cognizant of media manipulation projects, like Project Veritas, and not giving oxygen to people who have been shown to spread misinformation in the past.
Daniel Funke is a staff writer covering online misinformation for PolitiFact. He previously reported for Poynter as a fact-checking reporter and a Google News Lab Fellow and has worked for the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When he’s not chasing down online hoaxes, the University of Georgia graduate can be found cycling to a local brewery.
What advice do you have for reporters who might be new to covering vaccines and are looking for sources to cover the COVID-19 vaccine regulatory process and its roll out?
Read [AHCJ Core topic leader and journalist] Tara Haelle’s work! And take a look at the members of the FDA’s [Vaccines and Related and Biological Products Advisory Committee], the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s [Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices,] and the National Academy of Sciences’ vaccine framework committee. Those are the people that regulatory agencies look to for advice and who will be the most up-to-date and informed about the vaccines.
Dana Smith is a senior staff writer for Medium.com’s Elemental.
Many journalists are covering COVID stories without a health or science background. Can you share some resources for them to get up to speed quickly on a deadline?
Having the right experts to comment is very helpful. Follow people who keep up with the literature and put them into context — this list of 50 experts from Elemental is a start, but there are tons of others. Search for the paper or preprint on Twitter to get a sense of what scientists are saying.
And familiarize yourself with PubMed, biorXiv and MedrXiv — a quick search on these can help put the new findings into perspective and help determine whether it is truly new and important.
Apoorva Mandavilli is a science and global health reporter at The New York Times. This is an excerpt of article originally published by the National Press Club Journalism Institute and was republished here with permission.
How do you prioritize what COVID-19 stories to focus on and what are your favorite resources for finding stories?
I think (about what) the public would like to know about: money, family, health, safety and community. Those are the big five. If it has to do (with one of those), it’s a surefire hit. … And (to find stories) I look for unusual stories like an NPR podcast that isn’t on the NPR [front] news page. On Thursdays, I go to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and look there. I look at Stat and The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I look at newsletters from professional groups, like newsletters for surgeons and nurses and prison guards and political officers. Firefighters have a website called Firehouse. There are all kinds of things like that, which are affinity sites. Like ESPN has had stuff and I look at Facebook pages in groups where journalists share stories that they did. I use things like Google News and Google Alerts. Some of my stories come from readers. Readers who will say, did you hear this or that? I’m also really interested in business stories. … The angles are endless.
Al Tompkins spent 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer, investigative reporter, head of special investigations and news director before joining the Poynter Institute as a senior faculty member for broadcast and online. He is the author of "Aim for the Heart" a textbook about multimedia storytelling that has been adopted by more than 100 universities worldwide.
In your recent story on rapid antigen testing in nursing homes, you had to sort through many layers of rules and regulations for testing of residents and staff. How did you keep it all straight?
For reporters, one of the difficulties in covering this pandemic is constantly shifting guidance from both federal and state officials on COVID-19 testing and who should get tested. Nursing homes are subject to their own regulations from state health departments and the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
As a result, for this story, that meant checking all of the following sources:
One of the problems that I discovered along the way is each one of the federal agencies said something slightly different about how the antigen tests should be used. And then, adding to the problem, the misaligned federal guidance sometimes would conflict with what state health departments were saying. That became a significant part of the story but it isn’t unique to nursing homes – this issue could manifest for other COVID-19 testing stories, too.
Rachana Pradhan, a Kaiser Health News correspondent, reports on national health policy decisions and their effect on everyday Americans. A recent recent story was about rapid antigen testing in nursing homes. Pradhan came to KHN from Politico, where she covered health care policy and politics on national and state levels.
What advice do you have for journalists who may also want to report about misinformation on social media?
There is a trend in journalism to fact check misinformation, but using that tactic has proven to reach just a fraction. Through my reporting, I've learned that the worst misinformation dealers know how to amplify their claims to reach the widest audience for the largest profit — not through studies or statistics, but through individual stories, often untrue, but told by real people. We fought stories with stories, not of cancer patients saved by miracle cures or babies suffering after vaccines, but of the real people harmed by such health misinformation and the people who profited.
To find similar stories, I suggest talking to researchers who have studied the subjects and asking them what stories aren’t being told. Misinformation and digital sociology has been a thriving topic in academia for decades and the news is just starting to take notice. My other advice would be to fall down the rabbit hole. Reporting on online communities takes time. Groups like the anti-vaccination movement and alternative health communities have their own languages and rules. Join as many groups as you can and lurk until you understand the group dynamics, power players, and idiosyncrasies. Poring over posts will lead you to uncover related groups and additional stories. Be tenacious! Scrolling back — for years even — will bring you to posts from members who may no longer be in the group: people who may have been harmed or disillusioned by the practices and may be ready to talk as a source.
Brandy Zadrozny, a reporter for NBC News, co-wrote stories in 2019 with Aliza Nadi about health misinformation on Facebook. Previously, the former librarian-turned-senior researcher and writer worked at the Daily Beast.
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.
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 a Seattle-based independent journalist, photographer and fact-checker who writes about science, health, environment, global development and human rights. Wudan co-hosts The Writer’s Co-Op with Jenni Gritters, supported by an NASW Idea Grant. 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."
When you are working on an investigative story, and the public health department won't talk to you and won't answer questions, what do you do?
When I was working on my story "Scientists Think Alabama's Sewage Problem Has Caused a Tropical Parasite. The State Has Done Little About It," the [Alabama] department of health wasn’t happy with me and it took them a while to respond to me. That isn’t the first time that has happened to me, so you just carry on and get others to tell [you] things, so then I could call them and say, ‘I was told this is it true, so is it?’ and so then I got them to answer my questions.
For example, [as I was working on my story], Fox News published a piece that said the [Alabama department of health] had plans to launch a new waste water project. I asked the department of health about it and they didn’t want to tell me anything further about the project. The [Fox] article said the health department got verbal approval [for the project] from the Alabama department of agriculture. So, I got in touch with the department of agriculture. What they told me is that the agency hadn’t gotten a completed application from [the department of health] and they hadn’t approved any funding. So that is one way to verify things. You go to the other parties and double check.
Independent journalist Arielle Duhaime-Ross (@adrs) is a contributor to Vice and the host of Reset, a podcast that re-evaluates the role of technology in our lives, from Stitcher and the Vox Media Podcast Network.
What do you need to know if you are a foreign journalist and want to report on the ground on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
This region is dangerous. If you are a journalist you have to know that anything can happen. You have to have your bullet-proof jacket and your gas mask and have to follow Ebola safety training to come here. Most journalists who come here don’t know how to wash their hands, so they have to have training about this outbreak. If possible, you should be in touch with someone who speaks Swahili and some French. Then everything will be good.
A foreign journalist [also] has to have accreditation to be here. You have to pay $500 to the Ministry of Communication and you have to get the okay from the Ministry of Health. If a journalist wants to go to an Ebola treatment center, you have to get the okay from the Ministry of Health.
Al-hadji Kudra Maliro, 27, is a photojournalist, fixer, reporter, activist, writer, video-producer. He is the eastern Congo correspondent for the Associated Press and has contributed stories to the Christian Science Monitor, Daily Mail, Le Monde, France 24, Yahoo and Stars and Stripes.
Do you have favorite resources on mosquito history that you would recommend to journalists?
There have been some fantastic and weighty books written on the topic. As Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” J.R. McNeill’s “Mosquito Empires” is brilliant, fascinating, and so well researched and written. It was the very first book that I read while beginning my concentrated research, and I was blown away with his indefatigable research and the historical dots that he connected. Also, Sonia Shah’s, “The Fever” is another solid entry, although it’s focus is more modern-based on drug companies, and recent malaria treatments and the corporate side of our war with mosquito-borne disease, specifically malaria. The works of Andrew McIlwaine Bell, James Webb Jr. and Randall Packard are also impressively researched and very well-crafted.
Timothy Winegard, Ph.D., is a professor of history and political science at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colo. Winegard recently wrote “The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator.” For anyone who is interested in understanding the history of medicine and how disease shaped history, this is worth the read. Winegard served as an officer with the Canadian and British Armed Forces, has lectured on C-SPAN, and has appeared on televised roundtables and documentaries. He has published four previous books, in the fields of military history and indigenous studies.
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.
How do you get stories when sources are reluctant to talk? For example, how did you find the patient stories for the recent New York Times series ‘Deadly Germs, Lost Cures’ on antibiotic resistance?
Look through [scientific] journal papers on antibiotic resistance. Many of the authors are germ hobbyists of the highest order and are willing to help. For example, I found Jacques Meis, who is a disease hunter in the Netherlands. I just kept asking him to introduce me to people around the world, from Argentina, to Brazil, to India. And I kept making calls. The other thing I did was try to find doctors and nurses that would talk to me.
I found them by using Linked In and Facebook and I’d just introduce myself and say ‘Hey I’m Matt Richtel, I am from the New York Times, I’m doing this story, would you help me?’ Or do you know a friend, who might know a friend who could help? I also called lawyers that sue on public health issues. Often they do discovery and are helpful. They also sometimes have documents from the discovery [process]. and that can be useful. Check in with nonprofits. We got lucky because a nonprofit handed me something that helped us. Some states have sunshine laws. Like in Washington state, we were able to get information by filing a request under sunshine laws.
Since the series has run, we are now getting patients to come to us. They are scared.
Matt Richtel is a best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times based in San Francisco. Read more about the series on antibiotic resistance here. He joined the staff in 2000, and his work has focused on science, technology, business and narrative-driven story telling around these issues.
What tips do you have if you are traveling overseas to report on a story?
Make plans, but expect them to change. If the reporting is going badly, move on. If it’s going well, stay longer. I try to carve out time at the end of the day to jot down the most memorable moments. And if I have time in the morning, I try to think about what holes I’m missing. If there are people who will be hard to reach once I leave the country, I prioritize asking them everything I can. I over report like mad.
I also try to travel within a country so that I hear different perspectives. For example, I reported a part of the malaria story [Malaria’s Ticking Time Bomb] from the Karen state of Myanmar that has a long separatist history from the rest of the country. Their point of view — even on matters of national malaria control — was different from what I heard in Yangon because of their fraught history with the Burmese government.
A final tip is something I’ve yet to master: Don’t panic when your story seems to be bottoming out. It won’t. And let your intuition guide you towards brilliant people—that’s not too hard when you’re covering health because it attracts dedicated individuals. An editor once told me that a story can be as simple as a compelling character overcoming a difficult obstacle.
Amy Maxmen is an award-winning science reporter at Nature, based in San Francisco. Her writing has also been featured in Wired, National Geographic, Nautilus and other outlets.
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.
You wrote a book about public health and climate change, which included a chapter on infectious diseases. Who would you recommend as resources to journalists interested in covering this topic?
I really learned a lot from the local public health officials and the community activists in each of the places that I focused my book. So [it was] local folks in the Central Valley in California, who help me write about Valley Fever and the local health workers in New Orleans [helped me write about public health infrastructure]. I would say [take the same approach] today.
The people at the CDC are excellent, so I would talk to them, especially about the spread of infectious diseases. Talk to local activist organizations. Talk to the National Resources Defense Council and Kim Knowlton, who is their senior scientist and deputy director of the NRDC Science Center. Just pick an area and find a community-health organization and they are working on the health angle of this. Call your local university, they are working on it. Also talk to the American Public Health Association, their leader, Georges Benjamin, has really taken this topic up. But call local groups where infectious disease outbreaks are happening. You’ll find great people there to bring your story to life.
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover and a former Los Angeles Times health reporter. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Science Writing and she has authored two books, most recently: Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves.
Georgia Health News recently published your story “Predicting Pandemics: It’s Not Easy But Researchers Are Trying.” What resource recommendations do you have for covering infectious disease outbreak modeling?
There are plenty of resources available online through a Google search. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a website called the Epidemic Prediction Initiative. The National Institutes of Health’s ongoing prediction efforts, called the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS), are listed on the National Institute of General Medical Sciences website. Finally, the best way to find information on latest research and progress in the field is via subscriptions to embargoed studies from different infectious disease research and medical journals. Some of the most useful journals for my work include: The Journal of Infectious Diseases and The Journal of Infectious Diseases on JSTOR [a digital library for scholars and researchers]. [Editor’s note: AHCJ members also have free access to the Journal of Infectious Disease Modeling, an open-source journal publishing research on mathematical modeling and infectious disease]
Prajakta Dhapte is a health and medical journalism student at the University of Georgia. She also holds a masters degree in virology from the National Institute of Virology in India. With a background in infectious disease, her interest as a journalist lies mainly in the intersection of infectious disease and public health.
For a reporter who is new on the food safety beat, what do you recommend for resources?
Sign up for USDA food safety and inspection service notifications. The FDA has a notification system as well. I would recommend you start building sources with people who work in food safety to ask them what they are worried about. You can find those folks in a number of places. A lot of the universities in agriculture states will have food safety professors. Reach out to consumer advocates. They pay attention to recalls. USDA and FDA post online training manuals, which gives you a sense of how the government thinks about food safety. Also the FDA has a science advisory board and some of those folks are helpful when it comes to food safety. Also look for plaintiffs’ lawyers who have sued over the recalls.
Sam Bloch is a staff writer at The New Food Economy, a nonprofit newsroom based in New York City, where he covers food policy, labor and technology. He has also written about arts and culture for publications including The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, and Artnet. An essay about the lack of shade in Los Angeles will be published by Places Journal this spring. Bloch is a graduate of Vassar College and the Columbia Journalism School.
What are some approaches to showcasing the relevance and importance of an on-going public health issue that is no longer making headlines?
Texas suffered from a huge outbreak of West Nile virus in 2012. And while there are still cases here every year, including those that cause deaths and permanent disabilities, we don’t hear much about it these days. Yet it remains a serious public health threat, especially during the summer months. Moreover, there is no treatment or vaccine. When I decided to look into the current status of the disease, I found that certain types of reporting helped me uncover a story that was fresh, relevant and worth telling. If you are looking at reporting on something that has faded from the headlines, but may still warrant the spotlight, here are a few suggestions.
Highlight aspects of the disease many may not know: I included interviews from survivors of the disease to provide a firsthand understanding of how serious the virus can be. Nearly all reporting on West Nile tells you it’s either asymptomatic or “flu-like.” Though rare, the disease can have many other more serious effects, like paralysis and hearing loss, as my sources stated, of which many of the public are unaware.
Look for technology or innovation that may be going on to combat, prevent or treat the disease. I featured a vaccine that was under development and an imaging project being piloted to help better target mosquito pools that may carry West Nile. This approach is also a great way to localize the story. Find out what universities or companies in your area are doing — whether product development or pure research — and include this in your reporting.
Connect your story to broader themes. My story was about West Nile, but it also touched on solutions to broader problems. For instance, the featured vaccine targeted not just West Nile but all diseases carried by mosquitoes, while the imaging technology about which I reported has the potential to identify the habitats of not just mosquitoes, but other vectors that carry disease.
Margaret Nicklas is a freelance journalist and mom, living and working in Austin, Texas. She writes on health, education, and, occasionally, on local government or other public affairs topics. Her work has been published in the Austin American-Statesman, Texas Tribune, Austin Chronicle, Austin Family Magazine, and Texas Heritage Magazine. Recently, her three-part series on West Nile virus and a story on rural hospital closures in Texas were aired on KUT public radio in Austin for the Texas Standard. She earned a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013. In previous incarnations, she was a government auditor, program analyst, ESL teacher and writing instructor.
How do you cover a global health story, like the Ebola outbreak from a desk in the United States, when this is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Twitter is very, very helpful. I follow the World Health Organization, which has completely revamped their outreach and communications around infectious disease outbreaks. You can quickly be alerted to new developments by turning on Twitter notifications for Peter Salama, [WHO deputy director general for emergency preparedness and response]. I also get notifications from infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell [with STAT], Ron Klain [Obama’s former Ebola czar], the DRC’s Ministry of Health, and Dr. Tedros, the WHO head – along with other sources serving as part of the response on the ground in DRC and the wonderful community of people who follow outbreaks closely and amplify important news. That said, while Twitter has been invaluable – you can’t just rely on tweets. I frequently call up sources on the ground in all of the above organizations, along with Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee, who are able to paint an even fuller picture of what is happening.
Lauren Weber (@LaurenWeberHP) reports on a variety of global and national public health issues for HuffPost, from tuberculosis and malnutrition to rural hospital closures and antibiotic resistance. She is also the creator and editor of The Morning Email, HuffPost's weekday rundown of the news that you need to know for the day. You can also hear her as HuffPost's morning news voice on Amazon Echo. She previously wrote for AHCJ about covering hepatitis.
What advice would you have to journalists covering Ebola from the U.S or in Africa? How can we make these stories compelling? What can journalists do to make sure they don’t inflame fear when reporting about scary outbreaks like the one that occurred in west Africa in 2014.?
To be honest I think fear was an appropriate response to the 2014 outbreak. That was a very dangerous situation and it could have gotten much, much worse if the world collectively hadn’t recognized the danger and mounted an enormous – though far too late – response to it.
Consider this: There were cases in Lagos, Nigeria, a mega city with a population of about 21 million people. That’s only a couple of million people fewer than Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia combined. And that’s just one city in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country. (190 million people) The Nigerian outbreak was successfully contained after only 20 cases. That was done because some people took some smart, brave decisions – and there was some luck involved. But if Ebola had gotten established in the slums of Lagos, I am not sure how long it would have taken to put out that outbreak.
I don't think the problem for Ebola is making it compelling. The challenge is getting good sense of what's happening — which is tough with a fluid situation half-a-world away — and knowing how much to write about it. And keeping it in context.
Eg. For me, the worry in the horrible West African outbreak wasn't that Ebola was going to start spreading in North America. It was that it was infecting and killing huge numbers of people in Africa and affected countries were suffering terribly. And the real concern was that if it wasn't contained -- if the world didn't figure out how to extinguish that conflagration — it could have gotten into some African megacities and touched off a situation that would have taken years to contain.
Regarding resources for journalists to understand Ebola and help guide their coverage. I co-wrote this one with Martin Enserink, a wonderful reporter for Science, for the World Federation of Science Journalists a few years ago. And (of course) the Association of Health Care Journalists has some great resources for reporters too.
Helen Branswell, Stat’s infectious diseases and public health reporter, held a live chat with readers about Ebola on Sept. 11, 2018. During the chat, she answered several questions from AHCJ’s Bara Vaida on resources for journalists. Branswell came from the Canadian Press, where she was the medical reporter for 15 years. Branswell cut her infectious diseases teeth during Toronto's SARS outbreak in 2003 and spent the summer of 2004 embedded at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010-11 she was a Nieman Global Health Fellow at Harvard, where she focused on polio eradication.
The typical definition of the word epidemic means ‘a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease,’ but it has been used to describe all kinds of non-infectious diseases public health crises, including the number of people overdosing and become addicted to opioids. Should journalists be using the word ‘epidemic’ when writing about opioids? Is the word ‘epidemic’ so overused that that it risks being too glib? What might be alternative wording to convey the seriousness of this public health emergency?
There is definitely a strong case for categorizing and tagging opioid overdoses as casualties in an "epidemic." After being on the beat for a few years, I don't think “opioid epidemic” is the best description for what's happening right now. I prefer to say “overdose crisis,” and when editors don’t let me get away with that, I say “opioid overdose crisis.” Communities, truly, are in crisis.
Some of the rhetoric out there (that I find misinformed) renders opioids like they're Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The problem is, opioids are used everyday by patients at home and in hospitals, without any complications. That's not to say that they're without risk, but by using the word epidemic, we have dramatically inflated who is at risk for addiction and why:
People with depression, anxiety, and trauma; people who feel economically left behind by society. The risk also intensifies the younger you are, too.
Moreover, a lot of overdoses are not just opioid-related, they're polysubstance, typically involving alcohol, benzodiazepines, and increasingly, cocaine. People must be informed that mixing drugs is super dangerous, and doing so dramatically increases the risk of overdosing. Now we’re dealing with illicit fentanyl, which is synthesized in clandestine laboratories. We need to do a better job communicating that these drugs are not being prescribed.
Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He covers public health and criminal justice with a special emphasis on drugs. In 2018, Siegel was selected as a Guggenheim Reporting Fellow at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Slate, Vice, New York Magazine, The Appeal, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @ZachWritesStuff.
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.
What should reporters know about covering fungal infections?
Consider the complexities of covering antifungal resistance. Fungi are not bacteria but, like bacteria, are becoming resistant to medications designed to kill them or stop them from growing. Reporters have written a lot about resistance to antibacterial medications, cleaners, and sanitizers, but not antifungals. This is an emerging area of concern to health care providers both in the United States and the rest of the world. It is an area that deserves more media attention.
One invasive fungal infection of particular concern is candida, which is one of the most common cause of health-care associated bloodstream infections in U.S. hospitals. Rural communities are at increased risk for certain fungal diseases, like candida, because these hospitals lack funds to employ infectious disease specialists on staff that could recognize resistant fungal infections. Reporters in rural areas may want to look into whether their local health care systems have the resources to spot and treat these resistant infections.
For reporters looking for a global angle, one less-obvious-yet-significant element in covering antifungal resistance is exploring how social determinants and the predominating geopolitical climate impacts access to treatment. From a global perspective, Cryptococcus Neoformans, (a fungus that can cause severe lung and center nervous system disease) which typically only affects people who have reached advanced stages of HIV/AIDS, has become endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Pacific largely because the first-line treatment for the condition is unavailable and second-line treatments are not as effective. Seek out stories of organizations that may be addressing this now endemic disease.
If you’re new to covering fungal diseases and antifungal resistance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a good overview regarding fungal diseases and antifungal resistance, treatment, severity, and geographic reach, here and here. However, state, county, and city records also offer good insights. Examples of places to look for regional data on fungal diseases can be found in: California, New York and Texas. The World Health Organization and PubMed search are good starting points for international and global perspectives.
Frieda Wiley is a freelance journalist who covers health and medicine. A pharmacist by trade and a former consulting editor for the American Botanical Council, her byline has appeared in AARP, Infectious Disease Special Edition, Undark, US News & World Report, and MedPage Today.
What advice would you give someone who is covering the connection between infectious diseases and climate change?
This connection is an emerging topic and one of the ways to really bring it home to readers is to tie it in with a current event or outbreak or to localize it to the region of your readers.
To find out what infectious diseases might become more prevalent, or widespread, I would suggest visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Climate and Health website.
And this section of the CDC site enables reporters to drill down by state and county on climate change data to track expected expansions of flood zones and extreme heat days.
A more global perspective can be found in the Lancet report. The Lancet Countdown tracks progress on health and climate change and every two years releases a report, the last being released on October 2017. The report can be downloaded for free.
The World Health Organization provides climate and health country profiles and its website is a good place to find sources for the global perspective.
For U.S. specific stories it is worth noting that the changing climate has shifted the geographical distribution of tick fevers: If you live in a state where a disease like Lyme disease isn’t a problem are you seeing the first cases of the disease?
Even if the incidence of a disease like dengue is increasing in another country, due to international travel and trade, it could mean higher risks to the U.S. population.
There are many angles for stories on the connection between climate change and infectious diseases and different ways to illustrate that this really is a global health problem.
Jane Palmer is a science journalist based in Eldorado Springs, Colo. She covers public health, medicine and health care. She has recently written two stories on the impact of climate change on public health for Mosaic Science. In 2017, she traveled to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria where she reported impacts of extreme events on public health and how islanders build more resilience into the health system in anticipation of future extreme events. Examples of her work can be found at www.tjanepalmer.com
What would you encourage reporters who cover infectious disease to consider that might not seem obvious?
I’d highlight the important role that socioeconomic status plays in shaping infection risk and disease outcomes. People living in poverty often live in more crowded conditions than affluent people do and are more likely to take public transportation, both of which increase their susceptibility to infection. They may also be under more stress, get less sleep, and eat less nutritiously, all of which hinder immunity and increase vulnerability, too.
And then once people are sick, socioeconomic factors shape their prognosis. People living in poverty often have no or poor access to health care. They might feel compelled to work when sick — low-paying jobs often have strict sick leave policies — which means their ailments, might worsen while they’re also spreading their illness to their colleagues. The upshot is that people on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder are extremely vulnerable in outbreak situations, so they should be an important focus for reporters who are thinking about risks as well as outbreak responses.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and health writer based in New York's Hudson Valley. She is a contributing editor for Scientific American and a columnist for Slate. She won a 2016 AHCJ Award for Excellence in Health Care Reporting.
What advice would you give to someone covering infectious disease issues like the flu or antibiotic resistance – topics you have had written about recently?
I have found that one of the most helpful interview tactics I have developed over time is to end every interview by asking if there is something else that should be on my radar or something that journalists haven’t been covering about X issue but we should all know. Some of the best stories or nuances in ongoing stories have come from replies to that question.
I also think there is a lot of value in communicating uncertainty to your readers. Telling them what scientists do not know about a disease or condition (as well as what we do know!) is a good idea because it helps build trust with your readership and it allows you to provide a fuller picture. As a writer, this approach also helps me organize my thoughts and think about where potential future stories may lie.
Dina Fine Maron is an editor at Scientific American who handles medicine and health. She covers everything from infectious disease and global health to cutting-edge lab research. She is based in Washington, D.C. Her award-winning work has also appeared in publications including Newsweek, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Time.com and E&E News. Follow her on Twitter @Dina_Maron.
The number of syphilis and gonorrhea cases is on the rise in the U.S. How should a reporter go about covering sexually transmitted diseases and watch for an outbreak in their community?
It’s tough to get timely data regarding STDs or other infections. You often hear things anecdotally at first and then need to follow up. Check with local colleges and urgent care centers, where people might go for more timely care. Talk to local internists and nurses—ask what problems they are seeing. Ask your own physician, nurse or friends for insights.
Try to give social justice and political context for the rise in STD infections, such the recent cuts in public funding for women’s health. For example, 21 STD clinics closed in 2012 alone. Planned Parenthood closed in Scott County, Ind., fueling a sharp rise in HIV. The clinic had been the only location for HIV testing in the county. It’s critical to give that social and political context for your stories.
Health departments may lag with STD data, but here are some web sites with useful information:
Judy Stone (@drjudystone) is an infectious disease physician and writer. She also conducted clinical trials, prompting her to write "Conducting Clinical Research: A Practical Guide: (available as an open access PDF as well as for purchase). She is a Forbes contributor writing about antibiotic resistance and infections, public health, and drug development.
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.
You might find the earliest reports of diseases among health care workers from two of CDC’s advisory committees: the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC). They meet two or three times a year; if you can’t attend in Atlanta, you can tune in via a teleconference. Another division of CDC, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also investigates disease risks of health care workers. A recent study looked at the toxic effects of cleaning solutions that are meant to protect against disease — so that reveals the complexities of this issue.
If you want to contact health care workers who have become injured or ill from their work, you could try the unions or professional organizations: Service Employees International Union, the American Nurses Association, or National Nurses United.
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.
How can reporters explore the cultural stories behind vaccine doubters?
There has been a campaign of anti-vaccine activists targeting specific communities, such as Somali parents in Minneapolis, Orthodox Jewish parents in California and parents of homeschoolers.
Whether the groups are secular or religious, these communities tend to have their own internal social networks. Journalists looking for a local angle on the vaccine debate may want to explore whether such campaigns, like this, exist in their communities.
Some of the questions to explore include the mentality behind these anti vaccine groups as well as why some parents may be vulnerable to vaccine nay-sayers. Explore the social factors unique to each community. They are vulnerable to anti-vaccine propaganda for very different reasons, but the common thread that is used is some kind of emotional appeal.
For example, the Somalis in Minneapolis had children who were affected with autism. Many of these parents already felt their concerns were not addressed by their health care providers and were willing to listen to people who said they cared about their health. In the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community, where outbreaks spread in Jewish day schools and Yeshivas, many people believed that measles was a mild disease and that not vaccinating children was their way of exercising choice over health based on misinformation spread by anti-vaccine groups.
Talk to social scientists at local universities and public health officials about how they may be changing their communications strategies to address the specific concerns of these different communities.
In the case of the L.A. Orthodox community, public health officials worked with leaders in the orthodox community to explain that by vaccinating their children, they were adhering to Jewish law by protecting the vulnerable.
To find out more about vaccination rates in your community, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has excellent data here.
Wendy Wolfson is a science writer based in Irvine, Calif. She covers innovation in biotechnology, medicine and healthcare. She was a columnist for Chemistry & Biology (Cell Press), and freelance contributor to Nature Biotechnology, Science, Red Herring, The Lancet, Bio-IT World, Wired, The Boston Globe and CURE magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are a few tips for reporters covering global health issues?
First, subscribe to Pro-MED Mail, a mailing list on global emerging diseases that provides broadly sourced, up-to-date information on outbreaks important to both human and animal health worldwide. The volume can be a little high, but there's no better way to stay ahead of the curve on emerging infections – except, perhaps, for actually working in global health.
Global health issues unfold in complex contexts that we often hear very little about in daily mainstream news – but understanding those contexts can greatly inform your reporting. Read about issues in global aid and development both on-topic and peripheral to global health: Devex and The Development Set are both good resources for development-related news, and the Economist and Foreign Affairs are good for more general global sociopolitical context.
Although it's best to report global health issues from the places where they're happening, that's not always possible. When finding sources from afar, note that while large multilateral organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and United Nations agencies may give you good high-level information, they may also avoid addressing problems related to aid delivery, or developments in an outbreak that reflect poorly on their organizations.
For more nuanced viewpoints, look to the small, non-governmental organizations on the ground, especially organizations aligning themselves with human rights work, or academics affiliated with institutions who have research collaborations in the area. And be prepared for slow email communication or communicating by text message – SMS is often the most reliable way to communicate in remote areas in low- and middle-income countries, and a phone call may be nearly impossible.
Keren Landman (@landmanspeaking) is a practicing physician and writer who covers topics in medicine and public health. She is trained in internal medicine and pediatrics with specialties in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology, and served as a disease detective at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a researcher, she has focused on the prevention and treatment of HIV and malaria in resource-poor countries, and she has worked as a medical epidemiologist at the New York City health department. She lives in Atlanta.
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.
What is a good starting point when you are looking for new sources for covering the infectious disease beat?
This may go without saying, but read as many books as you can for context on the disease and experts to call. For example, are you covering mosquito-borne diseases? Read “Zika” The Emerging Epidemic” by Donald G. McNeil Jr. and “The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History” by Molly Codwell Crosby. If you are covering local hospitals, read “The Checklist Manifesto,” by Atul Gawande, and find out if your hospital has a surgical checklist and is using it. If it is late summer, and writing about the seasonal flu, read “Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918,” by Gina Kolata. All these books will also help deepen the context of your reporting and expand your source list.
Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.
What are some of the best resources you use regularly to cover antibiotic resistance as story?
I read lots of scientific journals like, Clinical Infectious Diseases, the Journal of Infectious Diseases, Environmental Health Perspectives,Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
I also regularly read the Lancet, the Lancet Infectious Diseases, Science, Nature, Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, and the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
Maryn McKenna is an independent journalist who specializes in public health, global health and food policy. Her latest book, “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats," was released Sept. 12. She blogs for Wired and is a columnist for Scientific American and a long-form and investigative writer for Self, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Nature, and other publications in the United States, Europe and Asia. She serves on AHCJ's board and Freelance Committee. You can follow her at @MarynMcK.
What makes a good anecdote in a health story?
If readers see themselves, or someone they love, in the person’s story, that’s a good anecdote. Reporters need to look for characters, not just quotes. A good anecdote dramatizes a situation rather than simply describing it, but it also illustrates the larger story while conforming to — not contradicting — the evidence. Inappropriate anecdotes are those that are not part of any trend and which are unsupported by the evidence or outright contradict the evidence base, such as Jenny McCarthy’s use of her son Evan to suggest that vaccines cause autism, a “poster child” for using an anecdote irresponsibly because it goes against the evidence.
Liz Szabo, John A. Hartford Senior Correspondent for Kaiser Health News, is an enterprise reporter focusing on acute care and end-of-life issues. She has an extensive background in medical reporting, including 12 years as a health writer at USA Today. Her work has won awards from the Campaign for Public Health Foundation, the American Urological Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians. Szabo worked for the Virginian-Pilot for seven years, covering medicine, religion and local news.
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