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Staff writer talks about covering COVID, responding to anti-science sentiment Date: 12/02/20


Dana Smith

By Bara Vaida

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.

Q: Tell us at AHCJ, what has it been like to cover COVID-19 this year?

A:  The first months were frantic and adrenaline driven. Everything was new to us and our readers, so we did a lot of basic stories: [like] ‘What is quarantine versus isolation?’, ‘What is a contact?’, ‘How can I get tested?,’ and ‘How does the immune system typically respond to a virus?’ Lots of basic information stories. That is our bread and butter, the servicey stories. Once we got through spring and realized COVID was going to be with us for a while, I slowed down and started to get into the larger explanatory stories of what we were learning about how the virus was behaving. At Elemental, we focus on the day-two story and not as much breaking news. We try to step back and provide more in-depth information and context for our readers.

Q: What was the biggest obstacle that you faced in your reporting on COVID?

A: The biggest obstacle is that we are a pretty small and relatively new newsroom. We are a staff of six and I am the only staff writer. There is also still some confusion about how Elemental fits in with Medium at large and that we are an independent journalism outlet, so getting more name recognition and getting on sources' radar can be a challenge

Q: Has anything surprised you this year?

A: Yes. A lot of the anti-science sentiment and the misinformation around COVID. It’s pretty disheartening to see. It isn’t entirely shocking, given the polarization [of the country] that we have seen, but you would think, this far into the pandemic, that we wouldn’t see continued denial of COVID. It makes us [at Elemental] think about how we can do our jobs better.

Q: What does that look like? Doing your job better?

A: I try to explain how the science evolves. So, for example, I did a deep dive on how the [SARS-CoV-2] virus is transmitted and why the understanding of the method shifted from surface transmission, which was the predominant theory in the beginning of the pandemic, to the understanding now that it is an airborne threat. I walked through the logic of how the experiments were done, and how scientists adapted their thinking about it. So hopefully people can understand that it isn’t that science is flip-flopping, but that science is a process, and we are updating recommendations based on what we learn. And that hit a nerve [with our readers.] One person commented that the article caused them to start wearing a mask.

Q: How do you find your sources for these deep dives?

A: I have a couple of go-to people who are very generous with their time, like Celine Gounder, at NYU Langone Health [who was just named to President-elect Biden’s coronavirus task force], Ellie Murray at Boston University, Angela Rasmussen at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, and Jose-Louis Jimenez at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And like for any science story, I speak to the authors of the studies I’m including, I look to see [which scientists] those studies cited, and I go to [National Library of Medicine’s] PubMed to look for other relevant researchers. I also use Twitter a lot. Many scientists are using it to post helpful threads that put new information about the pandemic in context.

Q: How do you find patients and families to talk to?

A: Social media is one of the best ways to do journalism on the street these days. I look for people who have tweeted about their or their family’s [COVID] experience. I look at Facebook support groups, which is a good source for patient stories. For example, the Body Politic [support] group for COVID long haulers has become a big patient advocacy group. They are even doing some of their own research, which is pretty phenomenal. I also find sources through a personal network of friends and family.

Q: As you map out COVID-19 story ideas for the coming months, what are you planning to prioritize?

A: Vaccines. We are seeing some exciting results and we are trying to put them in context for our readers. We also want to address the vaccine hesitancy that we are seeing. It’s not that people are [anti-vaccine], it’s that people are confused by the news and the name [of the vaccine campaign] ‘Warp Speed’ and they want to make sure it is safe and effective. So talking about that. Also, we are planning to do some stories on winter and mental health and how people can stay safe and sane inside their homes.

Q: What is your advice for how we can put the COVID vaccines in context?

A:  Lead with honesty. Personally, I am much more optimistic [about the vaccines] now than I was two months ago. It is important that the results we have seen have been consistent across the different manufacturers. Emphasize that these aren’t the results of a one-off study; it is accumulating evidence. I am also encouraged by the scrutiny of the vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration. When a decision is made, I do think that will be [based on science] and will not be a politically motivated [decision.] [We also have to] be honest [with readers] in that these [vaccines] are going to take a long time to be rolled out and people will have to keep practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

Q: What advice do you have for reporters who might be new to covering vaccines and are looking for sources to cover it?

A: 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 at Elemental, where ordinarily she covers the science of health and wellness. She has also written for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Scientific American, and Popular Science, among other outlets. Her reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic won the American Society of Journalists and Authors Crisis Coverage Award in the Science Category for her article on how Covid-19 affects blood vessels. Prior to pursuing a career in journalism, she received a doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of Cambridge.