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Persistence, persuasion pays off with critical global health security story Date: 01/11/19

Emily Baumgaertner

By Bara Vaida

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.

Q: What got you interested in writing about China and the influenza strain that is worrying public health officials?

A: The H7N9 outbreak underway in China isn’t what most Americans think of as a normal flu outbreak. Specific characteristics of the virus make it extremely dangerous to humans. Most experts believe that if this virus continues to evolve, and the wrong version of it jumps from poultry to humans, we could end up looking at something much like the 1918 influenza outbreak – hundreds of millions of victims.

Q: How did you find and break the story that the Chinese weren’t sharing virus data with U.S. public health officials?

A: I knew that the outbreak was underway, and there wasn’t a lot of information available in public realm on how the U.S. was preparing for that specific strain. The strain had evolved substantially over recent years and U.S. public health officials weren’t talking much about it, so this story came from conversations with sources. This was a source-driven story.

Q: So you were just asking around, calling your global health sources and asking, what do you know about what we are doing to prepare for this evolving H7N9 strain?

A: A few people said to me, off the record, that there were real issues with obtaining information regarding the strain and getting samples of the strain itself. Getting the most recent strain is important because you can design many vaccines based on genetic information you have, but you can’t test it or confidently update it if you don’t have the most recent strain. So I was hearing about a huge lack of confidence in America’s future ability to protect itself from the evolving strain without access to the latest version.

Q: You broke the story that we were at risk without having access to the latest strain. What has happened since?

A: There was certainly a lot of discussion between the countries. I don’t know that I can comment on it, as I am still reporting on the way the U.S. and China relationship is impacting the exchange of biotechnology and biological products. There are more stories to come from here.

Q: Did the story raise alarm bells among U.S. officials?

A: Yes. Lawmakers were calling me off the record, asking questions about why they hadn’t heard about the issue, asking for more information. It is worth mentioning that, as a journalist, it is always important to recognize the impact that your work can have – whether positive or negative. I knew that publishing this information could impact the relationship between the U.S. and China, and between the researchers and scientists in each country. You will find a lot of anonymous attribution in the story. Sources were hesitant to comment publicly because of fear of straining the relationship further.

There also were American officials who weren’t pleased with the story, not because it was inaccurate, but because airing it out could have negative repercussions for the future relationship between the U.S. and China.

To give some context, China was for a long time a black box when it came to biological information. Since the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] outbreak in 2003, the consequences were so miserable that they vowed to be more transparent. In some ways, the exchange of biological intelligence and epidemiology has been much better since.

Q: But you felt like it was important for the public to know that China was dragging its feet on sharing this particular biological information?

A: The role of journalism in general is often simply to hold the powerful accountable. That is our job. Some sources believed this reporting could put the pressure on them in a way that is representative of that goal. For people who believe China has the right to keep samples of H7N9 to itself, it’s just important for the public to know what the impact of that might be – which is that we may be less prepared if this strain becomes pathogenic.

Q: What is your sense of the U.S.’s preparedness in general for a pandemic or a bioterrorism attack? There have been many stories questioning whether the Trump administration has made this a priority.

A: I think that for some infectious disease scientists, there is solace in this administration’s focus on security and national security. This president has openly said that biological security is a priority. It was encouraging to many people that the administration released a National Biosecurity Strategy in September 2018.

At the same time, other global health professionals are worried that the administration’s America First approach is going to crush any chance of preparedness, since so much of this requires operating with an understanding of globalization. They believe the administration also generally has a poor concept of why policy needs to be based on scientific evidence. Travel bans are proven to worsen infectious outbreaks, for example.

Q: What advice do you have for journalists who are interested in continuing to follow this influenza story in China and the sharing of biological information between countries?

A: I would say, it’s important to talk to a wide variety of people. Talk to people who are in positions high in leadership, and then to those that are doing the ground work. I did talk to people on the international side in the World Health Organization but also within the US government and those who have left the U.S. government. The WHO is helpful in reporting these issues because they are able to neutrally tell me what is supposed to happen in terms of the exchange of biological intelligence. No one at the WHO said, “You won’t believe what China is doing,” of course, but they did confirm the process of what should be happening. Then I was able to compare that to what was actually happening.

Q: What were the biggest obstacles that you had to overcome to report this story?

A: Almost no one wanted to talk about this. My particular publication almost never publishes information without attribution unless at lease two or three sources will confirm it. So getting people to move from off-the-record to on-background [meaning, allowing the information to be used by my publication] was very difficult. There was fear of exacerbating the situation and shutting down communication. I probably spent dozens of hours working to get things that were very sensitive onto the record.

Q: What advice do you have for reporters who, like you, are pursuing a crucial public health story that people are reluctant to discuss?

A: This is an obvious reporting tip, but be persistent. When you’re shouted at, it often isn’t personal. I would ring someone’s phone off the hook. Once I could get the person on the phone – telling me to stop calling – then I could go ahead and get them to talk.

The other piece is just thinking a lot about why specific individuals don’t want to talk to you on background or on the record. Understanding their motivation helps you prepare for how you can assuage their concerns. I would say, before you walk away, I want to explain to you what it is I am working on, and why. And only then would I ask, do you want to participate? If you are motivated by good intentions, and you’re showing real passion for getting the story right, it can help confirm for someone that you are coming at this with integrity and respect.

There are a few people that wouldn’t talk to me for a long time. I would tell them directly: I am not going to trash the Chinese, nor the U.S. government. I am going to write about the situation exactly as it is, if you’ll help me do that.

Q: What are some of your favorite resources for global health and infectious disease topics? How do you find resources?

A: CIDRAP [the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota] is incredibly helpful in getting you thinking about what is coming down the pike in global health. It plants seeds on upcoming issues that haven’t made it into the news yet. When the Nipah outbreak started in India, I think I heard about it on CIDRAP and that hadn’t been reported on anywhere else.

For infectious disease stories, find scholars and locals who are active on Twitter. You can call them and ask them to unpack the quick thought they threw into a tweet. A lot of people are immersed in their communities and are eager to talk about something they think might have an unforeseen impact, and they want to talk because no one has asked them before.

Q: What got you interested in reporting on global health?

A: I started my career nowhere near journalism. I was studying global health in grad school and I did a little bit of research abroad. On one trip to Madagascar, I was studying how to integrate critical medical practices into traditional plant-based medicine in the rainforest, and I found myself caring more about patients’ stories and the circumstances of their health than about their individual vital signs. So I came back and took a job at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a crash course. I was in Sierra Leone in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, looking at how the virus was still brewing in survivors’ eyeballs, and wrote my first piece of journalism for the Atlantic. I was also in DRC Congo during an exploding yellow fever outbreak that was overshadowed by Zika, and ended up writing for the Washington Post. I just developed an interest in covering pre-news – threats that may not feel relevant to many people just yet.

Emily Baumgaertner works in The New York Times's Washington bureau, helping chase down presidential hires, fires, tweets and lawsuits. She has a master of public health degree and reports on health security and bio-defense in her spare time. She previously worked for the Pulitzer Center and reported from sub-Saharan Africa for The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Scientific American and others. Follow her on Twitter: @Emily_Baum