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Editor shares tips for reporting on China's mysterious pneumonia Date: 01/09/20

Lisa Schnirring

By Bara Vaida

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. Her continuing work can be found here.

Schnirring (@lisaschnirring) 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.

AHCJ: How did you first find out about this story?

LS: We monitor lots of different news. The first thing I do when I log into my computer in the morning is look at breaking news from health ministry websites. We also monitor government press releases, and news stories from reliable organizations. What has also been instrumental are infectious news blogs … two that were covering this story were FluTrackers and Avian Flu Diary.

Many of the people that run these infectious disease blogs are folks that have been monitoring disease outbreaks for many decades. Their volunteers have a passion for sifting through infectious disease news at the global level. They are all really smart people and they have a good sense of what constitutes a quality news outlet. They are really good at translating reports from different countries, even from China’s provinces. A Chinese provincial website will post something and the people looking for infectious disease stories are good at translating what the country’s health departments post. Sometimes they post things that are in Chinese media about a suspicious outbreak. But we at CIDRAP won’t report on it until we see something official. In this case, we waited to write something until we saw confirmation from the Wuhan Provincial Health department. This is the region where the outbreak began.

AHCJ: So you saw this story first on FluTrackers and Avian Flu Diary?

LS: Yes. I am on a first-name basis with the people who run those blogs. They are selfless volunteers. They know the media, they know what a reliable source is. So I’ll reach out to them, if I have questions about something.

AHCJ: When did the Wuhan government officially report there was an outbreak happening?

LS: December 31. A lot has happened since then. It is always a challenge when something breaks over a holiday and it was hard to reach anyone to get comment. I put out a bunch of queries to epidemiologists and virologists and they all got back to me, but it was days later.

AHCJ: How did you get info if you couldn’t get people to call you back?

LS: I follow a ton of virology folks on Twitter and health departments. That has been really useful to me. I always ask the person who tweeted if I can use their tweet before I incorporate their comments into my story. I don’t want to burn my sources. I want to get the best information I can from them.

AHCJ: Did you cover the SARS outbreak in 2003?

LS: I didn’t cover SARS. I worked for a sports medicine journal during those days so I missed that fun stuff, but I was at CIDRAP when MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] busted out in 2012.

AHCJ: What are you using from what you learned with the MERS outbreak in terms of how you are covering this outbreak now?

LS: The sources we talked to are kind of comparing the MERS clinical picture with what we are seeing now. Everyone is eager to learn how these coronaviruses behave.

AHCJ: How are you continuing to get information as this story is evolving half a world away?

LS: Our major stories are based on the increase in case numbers from official sources. We are tracking what other countries are doing to screen for sick people and prepare. Hong Kong is super transparent, super vigilant and we have had to use our judgment to decide what to report. They are almost giving too much info, in that they will tell you the test result of every patient coming from Wuhan with a fever and it is cold and flu season so there are a lot of test results.

Along the way, I continue to ping virologists and infectious disease people to get them to weigh in. Today I got some information from a virologist in the Netherlands. They give you information about what they think the next steps will be in the outbreak and so that helps you with your coverage to figure out what you should be writing for the next story. It’s like any beat reporting, it’s good to know what your next story is going to be.

AHCJ: If you are new to covering infectious disease issues, how do you find the right virologists to follow on Twitter?

LS: Look at who the main experts are and who they are following on Twitter. Look at their resumes and the websites of their labs. Two people that I quoted in my story yesterday are both coronavirus experts who are on Twitter.

AHCJ: What is your sense about where the story about this outbreak is going?

LS: I think in the next few days, China will come out with more information hopefully about the ill patients. That is one big question. Are they older or young? Who is likely to get sick from this? So hopefully, we’ll have more information on that. It would be nice to get more information about the family tree of this coronavirus to find out how directly it is related to SARS and MERS. And then the transmissibility between people is an open question. Some of the official statements have hedged on this, so it may be occurring on a limited basis.

AHCJ: Why is everyone so worried about this? Do they think it could be another SARS or a pandemic?

LS: Yes about SARS. Not so much a pandemic. They worry about a huge outbreak that could kill a lot of people. Things like that can hurt economies and add to health costs.

When you are talking about pandemic, it’s really the flu that people worry about, because we know those viruses spread easily. At least with MERS, you would have to have a lot of close personal contact, like with a care giver, or be in a health setting to transmit or catch it.

AHCJ: What are some of your other favorite resources?

LS: I use NewsNow as a news aggregator. I look for bioterrorism and flu, MERS, Ebola, bird flu, measles and Nipah virus, chronic wasting disease, Zika and several other emerging disease topics. There is a laundry list of things. So that is good for looking at what is breaking in the news because you can’t check every health department website.

On Twitter, I have subscribed to as many health departments as I can and to other journalists. I, like everyone else, admire what [Stat News’] Helen Branswell writes as well as those at other outlets such as Nature, Science, Vox, and the Washington Post to name a few. I learn a lot from them. More and more scientists are online and are getting out there with their thoughts and they are trading information with one another on Twitter so it’s like peeking in on their conversations.

AHCJ: What have been obstacles for you in this story and how did you overcome them?

LS: The New Year’s holiday, so it was hard to reach people. And when something is brand new and breaking scientists are nervous about speculating. Early on it was hard to get people to weigh in. So I just keep pinging them. And then someone would comment on Twitter and I would say: ‘Hey, so and so commented, so what do you think?' I am not beyond using peer pressure to try to get someone to comment.