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‘Question everything:’ 3 tips for covering health when you usually don’t Date: 10/27/20

By Holly Butcher Grant

When reporting on the evolving pandemic, skepticism is crucial, says Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter at The New York Times.

Official guidance and scientific consensus will inevitably shift, challenging journalists to provide new context and transparency in their coverage.  

We reached out to Mandavilli to learn how journalists can cover unfolding pandemic stories, even when health reporting is not normally their beat. 

As you’ve reported, the CDC is changing their guidance on both coronavirus testing and airborne transmission. What are your top three tips for journalists navigating the evolving pandemic landscape?

Mandavilli: My tips will all be familiar to journalists, but they take on new urgency and importance in this pandemic. 

  1. Question everything. We’re taught to do this anyway, but science journalists, especially, have been used to being able to take what at least some organizations (like the CDC) say as solid information. That’s no longer the case. Extend your skepticism to everyone and everything.

  2. Cultivate sources you can trust and who trust you. Again, among the basic tips, but more important than ever. With dozens of preprints to vet, it’s become important for journalists to conduct our own version of peer review and determine what passes the bar. Having experts who are willing to give you a quick read on what’s important is key — but also very important to make sure that you have the right experts. That is, don’t ask an immunologist to comment on airborne transmission or a virologist to put a change in CDC policy into public health perspective. The more careful you are, the easier it will be for sources to trust you, too.

  3. Make yourself easy to find. Keep your DMs open, respond to reader mail, get on Signal, WhatsApp and provide a number where people can reach you easily. You never know when a source will want to speak and which medium they will prefer.

When new guidance comes forward that contradicts previous reporting, what is the best way to proceed?

Mandavilli: In an evolving pandemic, things are bound to change and not every change is a sign of bad faith. Before you jump to conclusions, really understand what has changed (the wayback machine is really helpful), whether it makes sense in terms of the evolving science, and clarify why it matters. The more context and transparency you can provide readers about what changed and why, the better.

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?

Mandavilli: Here again, 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 PubMedbiorXiv 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.

This article was originally published by the National Press Club Journalism Institute and was republished here with permission.