Journalists from nearly every beat in almost every newsroom became de facto health reporters soon after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States.
Lindsey Leake’s lifelong interest in science made health her official beat at the TCPalm in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Around the same time, the Center for Health Journalism expanded its California-focused mission nationwide.
“For many newsrooms, it was like every reporter became a health reporter,” said Michelle Levander, the Center for Health Journalism’s editor and founding director.
The Center opened in 2004 at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to support healthcare journalists in California. The Center’s mission expanded over the years. It now serves journalists nationwide in every beat and encourages them to see the interconnections of health in communities, such as how systemic racism and poverty impact health and wellbeing. She said many health equity issues became apparent during the pandemic.
“One of our core ideas is to help journalists see the health angles across every sector of society from schools to business to things like transportation,” she said. “Your access to transportation can influence your health. Your access to a high school diploma is an important factor in how long you live.”
Healthcare reporting is personal
Levander referenced a town in New Mexico that had been heavily impacted by the opioid epidemic earlier and harder than the rest of the country. Journalists descended on the town. A journalist who later received a grant from the Center for Health Journalism found that people were unwilling to talk to him. So, he spent more time listening and talking — asking what story they thought should be told and what questions they wanted answered.
The result of this process may be different from the idea you started with, and that’s a positive. Levander said to go in with humility and be willing to adjust the hypothesis that served as the impetus for the project.
“Put away your notebook or your tape recorder and just talk to people and try to win their trust, and storylines might emerge that will be different,” she said.
Leake said some of her best stories came from her relationships with sources. She recommended meeting public health officials and public information officers within your beat for coffee. She said national reporters can also find ways to develop personal relationships, even if meetings are not in person.
She recommended cultivating relationships among epidemiologists and in academia, such as at research universities, schools of public health and translational science.
Levander said that for sources not accustomed to talking to reporters and sharing personal information, focus on making them “feel acknowledged.”
For long-term projects, keep in touch with those sources, let them know what will be reported about them and ensure they are comfortable with it. If the source is not in the story, let them know what they contributed to it.
Accuracy is paramount
Leake said reporters covering a health topic should never be afraid to go back for a second interview, spend additional time with a source, or find another source to explain a topic further.
“Don’t be embarrassed to go back and ask them to explain it again. You’re not stupid. You’re trying to understand something that’s really complex and that you didn’t spend eight years going to school for,” Leake said.
When finding ways to explain information, she suggested, “Ask, ‘How would you explain this to your best friend or your kid?’ I will say, ‘I need to explain this to my audience. How can I break it down?’, ‘What’s a simplified version of this?’ or ‘Of all this complex research, what are the two main things you think people need to know?’”
At the same time, she said, “Don’t be afraid to dive into a subject you’re unfamiliar with.” While she said she understands deadline pressure, “I say go all in. Do as much research as you can. Talk to as many people as you can.”
Leake said that in her experience when she is writing about medical research or a study, the authors are happy to explain their research. She has also found sources from The Scripps Research Institute to give her a third-party explanation of studies.
She recommended putting a face to any health issue that is being reported. Levander said she has seen common pitfalls when reporters rely too heavily on press releases. For example, an increase from one to two is not “double.”
“Just make sure that you’re not too easily impressed by a press release, and, especially if you’re in TV reporting, I think there’s a lot of pressure to cover something that’s being hailed as a breakthrough,” she said.
She said to avoid ever using the word “breakthrough” when it comes to health, medicine and research.
“Talk to other people who have not been involved in the study. When you’re dealing with people making claims about how miraculous something is, I think a good degree of skepticism is worthwhile,” she said.
Find the important stories
Levander said there is an endless supply of health story ideas for reporters on every beat.
“And they’re just hiding close to the surface and waiting for you. I think this is one of the richest story loads, and it’s one of just endless opportunity for great stories,” she said.
She recommended that journalists who cover a geographic beat or a city gather public records on death and chronic illness and examine variations among communities in areas like homicide rates and chronic diseases.
“There are stories behind that that go much deeper than just health — whether there are parks, whether there are places to buy healthy food, the transit access — all of those things that influence health that could be a part of your beat as a city reporter,” she said.
Another story Levander recommended for city and national reporters is to look at the public health infrastructure and see what has been put in place and what is lacking.
“People are leaving public health agency jobs in droves. We’ve seen similar things in nursing, where people are just very burned out. And so, on top of the underlying structural issues that hampered a robust public health response, we have huge staffing and morale issues,” Levander said.
She stated that many public health officials were threatened or fired, and those officials were stripped of their authority to issue mandates in many red states.
“So, what does that mean for your local community if there’s a shift in the authority a public health agency has?” she said.
Other health-related stories could cover the rising rates of overdoses from synthetic opioids and how opioid settlement money is being spent.
Also important are stories about aging and the infrastructure to support seniors, “how barren the supports are and what that means for family members economically and end of life care with dignity when so little is provided,” Levander said. She noted that rates of diseases like Alzheimer’s can vary, which can be more significant in communities that are more heavily impacted.
Stories about the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 are still important.
“I think there is a desire among all of us to think that the pandemic is over and that the ripple effects, which include economic ripple effects, are done with,” she said.
Levander recommended looking at discrepancies in these impacts, for example, the effects of long COVID on someone who does not have access to a clinic treating those symptoms or how undocumented immigrants were impacted by the pandemic and how they are coping now.
“Look at the community health angles of every story. Look at how different populations are being served. Many public health agencies made that mistake, so think through the consequences,” she said. “Something that seems very simple, like where a testing or vaccine site is located, can actually be quite significant for someone working two jobs or without a car.”
“Even if officials aren't asking the questions on demographics, race, ethnicity, class, neighborhood, that doesn't mean you can't,” she added.
She recommended starting with data and then “find the human stories that can really bring that alive.”
Using person-first language is an excellent way to approach a person’s health issues with sensitivity, Leake said. For example, write “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person.” Many groups put guides online to help journalists and others use appropriate language in dealing with various topics. But Leake said it is most important to just ask a person their preferred language.
It can be a challenge to present facts in a non-judgmental way. For example, when reporting a story about a person who nearly died from COVID-19 but still refuses to get vaccinated, Leake said it is essential to avoid "false balance.” False balance is presenting opposing views when one of those viewpoints is factually inaccurate and possibly harmful.
“Science is science,” she said.
Levander said an element of their fellowships is a discussion on how to present people and communities in a way that does not reduce them to the problem you are reporting.
“It's really just a way to think about how you approach sources and ensure that when you’re writing about a community facing a horrendous challenge, how do you not portray them as victims? How do you show them as whole people and not, in your very earnest effort to highlight their challenges, inadvertently make them seem pathetic,” she said. “I think that sometimes journalists gravitate toward drama as part of the storytelling, and how do you do that and make sure you're not pathologizing a person.”
When research and recommendations evolve
A challenge with maintaining public trust during the COVID-19 pandemic was the changing public health recommendations and evolving medical findings, Leake said. She recounted receiving comments from readers accusing her of “flip-flopping” or reporting something that contradicted an earlier report because of new findings in medical research.
“Communicate with your news consumers, making sure they know that science is an evolving discipline,” she said.
She also recommended linking directly to sourced documents when possible.
Both Leake and Levander said the polarization of the COVID-19 pandemic was unexpected.
“That’s been one of the tragic circumstances for anyone concerned about public health — that ideology has prevented people from doing things that would just be clearly beneficial to their health, and unnecessary illness and death when there’s a viable mechanism to avoid getting as sick, which is vaccines and masking,” she said.
To anyone confronted with burnout, Leake said, “I can relate.”
“When you’re reporting on health, you have to remember to take care of yourself, especially when it comes to mental health,” she said. “I’m glad there’s been a push to recognize journalists’ mental health.”
She said burnout, anxiety and chronic stress can impact anyone.
“No matter whether you’re reporting on local or national news — the burnout is real. You can have chronic stress or anxiety when it comes to work,” Leake said. “Sometimes you really have to slow down and take care of yourself because you can hardly be expected to do your best reporting and serve your community or whatever audience you produce news for if you’re not taking care of yourself. I know that’s hard in a fast-paced business. But you really do have to slow down and take care of yourself first.”
She said a few positive comments helped her through much of the negativity during the pandemic.
“When vaccines were first coming out … amid the barrage of negative comments, one reader reached out on Facebook and said the only way she got the vaccine was because of the resources I said were available,” Leake said. “Amid all the chaos, if I helped one person get a vaccine that could protect them and their loved ones, then at the end of the day, that’s worth it to me,” she said. “You do have to fight through the noise, and sometimes it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall, but it is very satisfying just knowing that I’m doing my best to communicate information that will hopefully ultimately better people’s health.”
Alyssa Choiniere is an Editor & Publisher contributor. She is a journalist based in southwestern Pennsylvania covering a variety of topics including industry news and criminal justice.
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