In a career that has spanned 40 years, Helen Branswell has covered some of the biggest health stories of the last several decades: the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, the West African Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. In 2003, she covered the SARS outbreak, her first experience reporting on an epidemic, from Toronto — one of the hotspots that saw hundreds of cases and dozens of deaths.
Branswell is a senior writer at STAT, a media company focused on health, medicine and science, where she covers infectious disease and global health. For the past 21 months, she has led COVID-19 coverage, writing about everything from the rise of variants to vaccine development to the spread of the disease itself. Her coverage garnered a 2020 Polk Award in the public service category.
Nieman Reports spoke with the veteran reporter about the changes COVID-19 brought to the public health beat. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nieman Reports: At what point did you realize that the pandemic was going to be such a big story?
Branswell: I first saw that something was going on in China on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t know at all that it was going to be as big as it was, but I knew it was something that I had to watch because China has been the source of several disease outbreaks over the last 15 years or so. I remember having an interview with Trevor Bedford [a vaccine and infectious disease researcher at Fred Hutch, an academic, teaching and research institution based in Seattle] in late January. At the time, the rule of thumb was that each case discovered outside of China probably represented about 500 undetected infections. He thought there were something like 13 cases outside of China, but I said, ‘No, it’s up to 29 cases now.’ He cursed and became audibly flustered. ‘If it’s not contained shortly, I think we are looking at a pandemic,’ he told me. I emailed my editor when I got off that call and said, ‘I think I just had the most frightening interview of my life.’ I would say, by then, I knew.
These days, if you’re a health or medical reporter, your job has somewhat morphed into being a political reporter as well. What has that shift meant?
One of the big, big things about this story has been how political it’s been, and it’s frankly, something that I hadn’t anticipated. I can’t think of another disease outbreak that I covered that has been as political. Measles outbreaks can have political elements sometimes — there’s the anti-vaccine crowd and how they try to exert pressure. There’s the question of what public health departments are willing to do to enforce mandates. That’s often quite political, but it’s nowhere near as political as this event has been. The Trump administration’s approach of downplaying the threat because it didn’t fit into the narrative they wanted to tell going into the election was just really astonishing, and the country is still paying [for it]. The fact that people can disbelieve objective truth — because somebody told them, that’s not white, it’s black — is an enormous challenge.
How have you dealt with the increasing politicization of the topics on the beat?
In the day to day of my work, I just report on and write the stories that I think are important and that my editors think are important. The fact that some portion of the public would disbelieve them, I can’t factor that into the decisions about what I write or how I write. Not reading the comments or engaging on social media also helps. Before the pandemic, I enjoyed Twitter a lot more than I do now.
Aside from your beat being more politicized, how else has the pandemic changed the work that you do?
I’ve probably written eight stories since January of 2020 that weren’t about the pandemic. It is not common for me to write exclusively for months on end about a single topic so the tenor of the work has changed.
Science evolves, which presents challenges for reporters trying to explain complex issues that unfold in a non-linear fashion. How do you convey that to an audience, especially one that’s so polarized?
The public is getting a lesson in real time about science and how messy it can be. Nobody — neither journalists nor the science community — does a very good job explaining to people the process. We need to do better in saying, ‘This is the best information that we have today, but tomorrow we will have more information and it might change our view of things.’
People lambasted the CDC and Tony Fauci, for instance, for initially saying there was no science to support the public wearing masks, but there was no science to support the public wearing masks at that point. If you remember back to March and April of last year, the government was urging people not to stockpile medical grade masks because there was a shortage of protective equipment for frontline workers. There were zero studies about people wearing cloth masks, but the CDC was giving people advice on how to turn a bandana into a mask. Your T shirt mask or my bandana mask maybe was preventing the spread of the virus, but there was no data to back it up. That data emerged over time, and the CDC changed their advice. That was sold as an error, like ‘You got it wrong, why should we believe you about masks? If you got that wrong, why should we trust you about vaccines?’
That was useful for the politicians who wanted to downplay the significance of the pandemic, but it hasn’t really helped the public at all. It’s difficult to explain to people that the science could change, but we have to be clear that it’s not us backtracking. It’s us finding out more stuff. When you put it that way, I think most people would find it intuitive.
Where does that narrative come from? Are the politicians setting the agenda and the press following suit? Or do journalists need a better vocabulary to explain these issues?
It’s a mix of the two. It’s definitely in the interest of the politician to frame changing advice as evidence of incompetence. But I also think in general there’s a temptation not to put as many caveats into a story as the story might need because if you do it can feel like you are undermining the story. This isn’t so much about vocabulary as it is about choices. I’ve become even more convinced that writing about individual studies as they emerge is part of the problem.
Very few studies offer a definitive answer. They add something to our understanding of things by building on what’s been known before or by contradicting what’s been known before. There are some exceptions, but every time somebody reads a headline that’s about one particular study, I think, there’s the possibility that they see that as the entire answer, and it rarely is. I have the luxury of working in a place where I don’t have to hit a quota of stories and I don’t have to chase what’s trending. Different outlets have different demands of their reporters and different standards, but I do think that in general feeding your readers or listeners or viewers simple answers to complex questions is not helping them.
What lessons did the pandemic teach you that you’ll carry forward as you report and write stories?
Get more sleep! I’ve also diversified my source base substantially. When you find people that you trust, that are really knowledgeable and will always answer your call, there’s the temptation to go back to them over and over again. It’s been really useful in this pandemic to find new voices and include those in the coverage. That’s something that I will continue to work at going forward.