Tips on finding and vetting experts during a disease outbreak
By Tara Haelle
When covering a hot, fast-moving health issue like a disease outbreak, a severe weather event or other public health emergency, it can be a scramble to find the expert sources you need quickly. Still, it’s essential to ensure they are the right experts you need for the story you’re writing. During an infectious disease outbreak, for example, relying on someone who appears authoritative and has experience in epidemiology or disease in general, but isn’t actually an expert in infectious disease, is dangerous. You risk communicating inaccurate or misleading information to an anxious public.
I asked two people who specialize in reporting on infectious disease how they find and vet sources during an outbreak: freelance journalist and AHCJ board member Maryn McKenna and Kent State University epidemiologist Tara C. Smith. I had two main questions for them:
How do you find and then vet experts to use them as sources in covering fast-moving hot public health topics in the news?
Why is it important to be sure the person you use as a source has the knowledge, experience, training, etc. in the specific topic area you’re writing about, as opposed to a generalist?
Here are their suggestions, followed by a list summarizing key points.
Tara C. Smith
I always start with PubMed or other literature searches to see who’s publishing in this area, and how recently they’ve published work to see if they’re up-to-date. If it’s something that’s fast-moving or fairly new, I also look at submitted grants in the area in NIH RePORT. Once I have someone identified, I usually Google to see if they’ve done previous interviews so I can see how good they are at speaking to the public on their topic. But this isn’t a deal-breaker for me if they haven’t. As we know, there’s a lot of potential for bias there if one only chooses those who have already been media sources in the past.
When it comes to ensuring someone has expertise specifically in the area I need, it depends on the topic how I assess whether they have the knowledge and experience necessary. For example, almost any epidemiologist could comment on some things, such as the basics of study design or general types of bias, because these run through the general epidemiology curriculum that everyone should know.
However, we have our own niches and specialties, just like any other field. Asking someone to comment on an area that’s outside of their particular niche runs the risk of interviewing someone with only a superficial understanding of the topic. They might still be able to address it, but they’ll likely lack the depth to be able to put new findings into context or discuss the history of a particular area and how any new information changes the field. They might not know how well a new publication or research finding is accepted by others in the field, or whether it’s controversial and contradicts other published literature. They might not know if the group or person doing the research is reputable or has a history of poor studies or paper retractions. You’re just opening yourself up to unforced errors if you choose an interviewee without solid knowledge of the niche you’re writing about.
In general terms, when I am looking for story sources, I too go to PubMed and try as many keywords as I can think of — sometimes using MeSH topics, but sometimes just plain-language—to see what pops up. Then I look for how frequent and how recent the publications are and who their coauthors are — are they names I recognize? I will also look at their faculty pages.
It’s important to take some time to do this, even in a fast-breaking story. For example, hypothetically, if the CDC comes out with startling news about a “vector-borne” disease, you had better do enough of a read on your results to separate the mosquito people from the tick people, and the human disease people from the animal people, or you will waste a lot of time emailing.
I also Google to see whether those people have been interviewed, and also whether they have been interviewed too much. I don’t want to be their 1000th interview. I try to avoid over-exposed sources in my area because they are likely to be saying the same thing to many people, and I don’t want to be copying-and-pasting what they have said elsewhere.
As a reporter who specializes in emerging infections and outbreaks, I also feel a special responsibility to avoid showcasing inflammatory language — it’s click-attracting, but I think it is harmful to our mission of informing the public. So when I Google to see whether and how much possible sources have spoken, I am also looking for the quality of their expression. On a spectrum of not-descriptive to OMG, I try to pick people who land in the middle.
If a story is fast-moving or if there are a lot of people piling in at once, I start with Twitter and look at hashtags to see who is contributing to the discourse and who has helpful things to say. Again, that’s because my mission is to impart information; people who have chosen to be clear and informative seem like better fits. If someone’s Twitter feed is mostly “I am quoted in X,” I will rank them lower; it shows they are already getting quoted a lot. (I mean no disrespect to people whose Twitter feed says such things; especially in a tenure-track environment, you have to record your public impact any way you can.)
On Twitter especially, I emphatically avoid people whose language is deliberately inflammatory because given how careful you have to be to stay within character limits, being inflammatory there can’t be accidental; it is something you have to choose to do.
Once I have identified someone likely on Twitter, I check out their past Tweets, including what people are saying back to them: are they being reinforced or affirmed, or corrected or objected to? And then I go to Pubmed, then to Google.
Pulling together the tips from McKenna and Smith, here’s a quick list to keep in mind:
To find folks, check PubMed keywords, Google Scholar keywords, Twitter hashtags about the topic you’re covering, and sites that expand the diversity of your sources, such as 500 Women Scientists and DiverseSources.
Check the institutional bio page of those you find and review their recent publications.
Look at how recent and frequent their publications are. Be sure their recent publications reflect expertise in the specific areas you’re covering. (They might have specialized in the topic you’re writing about 10 years ago but are no longer up to date.)
Look at their coauthors to see if you recognize any names. Coauthors may also become potential sources or may offer clues about the research or how collaborative it is.
Google the sources you’re considering to see whether they have already been quoted, where, how often and what they’ve said.
Check their social media feeds, especially Twitter, to see what they’re publicly saying, how well they’re saying it, whether it’s accurate and how they’re responding to others’ replies.
Avoid sources who use inflammatory language. Look for those who seem to fall between very dry and “WOW!”
To reduce the risk of bias, be cautious not to over-rely on the same sources you’ve frequently used in the past.
Consider avoiding sources who have already been very frequently quoted in stories if there are others you can contact instead (and there nearly always are).