The State of Health Journalism

Diagnosing COVID-19 reporting and beyond

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March 11, 2021 was the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and the entire world came to a standstill. It was also the date of President Joe Biden’s first prime-time address, where he announced that all adult Americans would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine beginning on May 1 (the date was later moved up to April 19). Since his initial announcement, more than 40 states have said they will meet or beat President Biden’s goal.

The news was the glimmer of hope for so many waiting people as we headed into our second year of the virus that has claimed the lives of more than 3 million people worldwide. Despite the good news, the pandemic is far from over, and there is still a lot of work to do. No one understands that more than the health reporters who have been covering the coronavirus since day one.

This past year made it clear to the news industry that health and science journalists are now more important than ever in the newsroom. But are we doing enough? What lessons did we learn from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how can we do better in our own health reporting?

Dealing with the Pandemic

“On the evening of Jan. 24, 2020, I conducted one of the most unsettling interviews of my career,” wrote Helen Branswell in an article on STAT (the health and science news site produced by Boston Globe Media), where experts shared when they knew when we were in real trouble last year. Branswell is a senior writer covering infectious diseases and global health for STAT.

Speaking with a computational biologist in Seattle, where the first U.S. case of the coronavirus was reported, Branswell learned firsthand that we were perhaps on the precipice of a global pandemic. The biologist turned out to be right.

STAT executive editor and co-founder Rick Berke added that his reporters (the STAT newsroom has nearly 40 people) knew very early on that the coronavirus was going to be a threat to the country. They moved quickly, expanding coverage, and producing live chats online with experts to better educate their audience.

The STAT newsroom wasn’t alone. Overnight, journalists around the world turned into health reporters. COVID-19 touched every aspect of a newsroom.

Naseem Miller is the senior health editor at The Journalist’s Resource, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to joining The Journalist’s Resource this year, she served as the senior health reporter at the Orlando Sentinel.

In Orlando, Miller worked alongside city and county reporters as they reported on press briefings and relaying the correct information to readers. Despite working remotely, she found that journalists from different departments were talking and communicating more with each other and sharing resources.

Early on, it was a learning process for the entire newsroom, Miller said. She relied on webinars with health experts who took questions from journalists. For her, it was “comforting and educational” to get the additional help and information. Still, covering COVID-19 was unlike anything she had ever experienced before especially when she saw the human toll and the number of people dying from it.

The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) currently serves more than 1,500 members. When the pandemic started, it became a top website to collect and distribute COVID-19 resources. Its COVID-19 resource page (healthjournalism.org/covid-19) provides data, tip sheet, and webcasts for all journalists. In addition, since March 2020, it has provided at least 25 podcasts on COVID-related topics. AHCJ is also currently offering journalists covering COVID-19 a special, limited-time membership offer that will grant them access to all resources found on the website for a discounted fee of $30.

Having those core topic writers in place put them ahead of the game, said Gideon Gil, AHCJ treasurer and board member (Gil is also a managing editor at STAT). Those core topics include infectious diseases, mental health, aging, and health reform. The infrastructure for those writers to pivot to write about COVID was already here, said Gil.

AHCJ also has the benefit of credible, experienced health care journalists on hand to guide journalists who don’t normally report on health and science. In today’s age of misinformation, it has become even more difficult for journalists to know what is accurate and what is not.

“We rely on our people to know what is credible and to point people to the correct experts,” said Gil. “AHCJ’s main purpose has always been to educate and train, not only health journalists, but all journalists covering stories about health.”

Berke also cautioned journalists that just because someone has M.D. in their name, it  doesn’t mean they are qualified to talk about COVID-19.

“In my experience, it’s people who are not pitching stories that can be trusted more,” he said. “Our reporters have developed sources and relationships in the field, in what was an inaccessible world to many people. Even our opinion pieces are carefully vetted to be reputable.”

Also combatting misinformation is The Virality Project. Launched in February, The Virality Project is “a coalition of research entities focused on supporting real-time information exchange between the disinformation research community, public health officials, civil society organizations, government agencies, and social media platforms,” according to its website (viralityproject.org) Their objective is to “detect, analyze, and respond to incidents of false and misleading narratives related to COVID-19 vaccines across online ecosystems.”

The website includes weekly briefings that summarize and highlight critical trends in anti-vaccine discussions. It also features policy analysis and rapid response narrative pieces such as the potential of “vaccine passports,” although the White House has announced it does not support such a program for Americans.

Looking Back and Ahead

At the start of the pandemic, the majority of the health-related news cycle focused on masks and social distancing, but it has now shifted to understanding vaccines and safety guidelines for in-person gatherings as they become the norm again. How can reporters keep an eye on a moving target and stay on top on all the developments?

“Our natural instinct is to let up (COVID coverage) after a year, but the nature of the pandemic is that it’s an ongoing battle,” Gil said. “New stories are constantly being told. As the virus evolves and new variants are found, this will create new challenges…For journalists, there’s a daunting, endless list of stories to pursue.”

Miller added that while journalists were pursuing COVID-19 stories, other health stories and non-COVID related issues, such as the effects of vaping and the opioid epidemic, fell to the wayside. As journalists return to those subjects, they may not look like they did before the pandemic.

The next couple of months will be key, said Berke. The big question will be “When will it be the end of the pandemic?” as more people become vaccinated. But the most important thing is to convey the message that there are still a lot of unknowns.

“What will re-entry look like? When will we go back to the office? What will things look like in three months, a year?” Berke said. “We don’t want to get to the light at the end of the tunnel and have things go dark again. We have to be patient because there are science and human behaviors that go beyond our control.”

Miller shared the same sentiments. “We have to show the public the scientific process, that what’s true today might not be true tomorrow,” she said. “It’s constantly evolving, but we have to be transparent and say, ‘This is what we know now.’”

Yet, there are many media lessons these health reporters have also learned from this past year. One of the biggest revelations in a year where the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial injustices came into play, inequity in health care was apparent, in particular when it related to those who were getting sick, who was dying, and who had access to testing and vaccines, according to Gil.

Due to the systemic racism and mistrust found in health care, Miller encouraged journalists to look for voices outside of the medical field. They include religious leaders and community activists, especially when it comes to addressing individuals who are hesitant about receiving the vaccine. To increase the use of diverse voices, she also encouraged journalists to “not assume” and ask sources (especially medical professionals) how they would like their race and gender identified in stories. It may also open up other conversations and discover other stories, she said.

On the flipside, this past year has raised an interest in health and science reporting, and there has been a public surge in readership.

“It’s the golden age of health reporting,” Gil said, commenting how terms like Pfizer and Moderna are now as common and well-known as Amazon.

But with this surge comes the need for more stories and more work for health reporters to shoulder as they face another emotional and physically exhausting year. As a result, there is some cause to worry about the mental health of journalists covering the coronavirus and how to better care for them.

While at the Orlando Sentinel, Miller covered the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting and helped start the Journalists Covering Trauma Facebook group to provide professional and emotional support to reporters who cover tragic events. She pointed out that research has shown the lasting effects of the pandemic, such as an increase in stress and sleeping disorders.

“Covering the pandemic was a whole other level,” she said. “It was a 24/7 news cycle on top of economic stressors like furloughs, layoffs, losing physical newsrooms, and hedge funds looming over reporters. In addition, the attacks on journalists on social media, and journalists losing jobs and their health insurance…managers are hearing more from their reporters that they are feeling burnt out. As journalists, we have this mentality that we have to tough it out to not appear weak, but we are living in extraordinary times. It’s okay to discuss these things and take some time off for self-care. I still worry about the tiny newsrooms and freelance reporters who are on their own. As a collective journalism community, we should be providing these resources.”

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