As health reporters approach or surpass one year of reporting on the pandemic, their role has become a more important public service than ever
For Lena H. Sun, a national health reporter for The Washington Post, reporting on the virus began on January 8, 2020. “An outbreak of an unidentified and possibly new viral disease in central China is prompting officials across Asia to take heightened precautions ahead of the busy Lunar New Year travel season,” she wrote in a co-bylined piece with Washington Post China correspondent Gerry Shih. Now, more than a year later, she is still on the story, sometimes writing several stories a day to cover all the new developments.
Sun, a longtime health care reporter, can rattle off an impressive list of massive health events she’s covered: fungal meningitis, Ebola, Zika, you name it. But the Covid-19 pandemic has eclipsed it all, she says: “There’s been a lot of public health issues but, obviously, nothing like this pandemic.”
As health reporters like Sun approach or surpass one year of reporting on the pandemic, their role has become a more important public service than ever. Some, including those at Politico, The Atlantic, and CNN, were recently honored for their coverage with George Polk Awards. Meanwhile, both national and local outlets have launched text message services to share information, fielded calls by confused seniors seeking vaccines, held live Q&As, and shared maps and lists with information on how to access testing.
Not only are health reporters tasked with communicating emerging public health guidance, they are also holding officials accountable for their responses, documenting the devastating human toll of the virus, and balancing the virus’ impact on their own lives.
Laura Helmuth, now editor in chief of Scientific American, was Sun’s colleague at The Washington Post at the start of the pandemic. While she also has a considerable public health reporting background and knew Covid-19 was spiraling into a pandemic by February, the virus has still brought a lot of surprises. “One of the biggest challenges for this pandemic has been that the science is moving so quickly,” she says. And that means guidance on how best to protect yourself has been rapidly changing, too.
That marked one of the first and ongoing challenges for health reporters during the pandemic: Explaining to audiences not just the science but explaining why guidance had suddenly changed.
Early on, federal guidance told people to simply wash their hands frequently to protect themselves and that they wouldn’t need to wear face masks. Then, new research came out that the virus could be spread asymptomatically. The public was given a new order: Mask up. However, President Donald Trump continued to cast doubt on the science by attacking public health experts, including top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, for initially saying the public didn’t need to wear masks.
The confusion that can result from changing information has to do with anchoring bias, which occurs when people tend to remember the first thing they’ve learned about something. People “fall into a judgement error … where we give too much credit to the initial piece of information we received on a topic and perceive the rest of the information through the filter of that initial impression,” Gleb Tsipursky wrote in Scientific American. For example, a person buying a car may research the average price and then jump on the first offer that resembles that average price, rather than considering other factors relevant for buying a car, such as mileage and the possibility that there’s a cheaper vehicle of equal value. During the pandemic, Tsipursky explains, people given guidance to not wear masks are likely to disregard new guidance on mask wearing, especially when they don’t see authority figures following it.
“We were legitimately reporting on the best available evidence at the time,” Helmuth says. “You have to kind of both say, ‘Okay, here’s the new thing we know, and this old thing we thought we knew … was actually not correct.’” To maintain trust with readers, Helmuth says being frank with them and debunking misinformation is key.
When it comes to vaccines, the rapid pace at which new information is coming out — from the speed at which new vaccines are approved to varying estimates on their safety and efficacy — has given way to confusion, hesitancy, and even dangerous instances of misinformation. One of the ways to debunk misinformation is by answering reader questions explicitly and in a consumer-friendly way.
In Florida, one reporter did just that by taking hundreds of calls from confused seniors and telling them what she knew about signing up for a vaccine appointment. In Texas, Gwendolyn Wu, a health care reporter for the Houston Chronicle, helps write a weekly COVID-19 Help Desk column where she answers four to five reader questions a week with insight from local public health experts.
An ongoing challenge for health reporters during the pandemic: Explaining why guidance has suddenly changed
“The thing that we, as health reporters, are still trying to figure out is how to deliver information in a way where people see it and they know the context behind it,” Wu says. That means not just explaining when and where people can get a vaccine, but also relaying that vaccine availability isn’t guaranteed — and understanding people’s frustration when vaccines aren’t available to them.
Answering questions about why a vaccine isn’t available is part of the health reporter’s job, too. “I’m seeing more and stronger reporting now about inequities in vaccine distribution than I did early on with deaths and testing,” says Aneri Pattani, a health reporter with Kaiser Health News. “It’s just gotten stronger and stronger as journalists have some time.”
Kaiser Health News recently published a piece revealing how vaccine appointment websites violate federal law and make it difficult for blind people to use them. In Washington, D.C., Washington City Paper looked at how a confusing online sign-up system and transportation issues prevented some Black seniors from signing up.
Holding public officials accountable can give readers something actionable to take away from stories rather than despair, says Caroline Chen, a health reporter at ProPublica. She calls out officials who distort numbers to weave their own narratives or explains how policies impact vulnerable frontline workers. In late March 2020, Chen was part of a team of reporters who revealed how the CDC fumbled its initial communication with health officials on the severity of the virus. “To show [readers] how the data points us to responsibility — for our leaders, certainly, but often, for every individual as well,” Chen writes in an email.
For Sun at The Washington Post, the watchdog role feels personal: her mom died of Covid-19 last year.
“It was especially hard to be covering a disease that then infected somebody in my family and killed them,” Sun says. In some ways, she feels even more responsible for making sure everything she reports is as accurate as possible and to hold the government accountable for botched public health messaging and efforts. “One of the biggest lessons to learn from this is the importance of consistent public health messaging,” Sun says.
For health reporters, that meant doing something that isn’t typically their job: Calling out public officials, particularly Trump, for lying, then sharing the real information. The Atlantic compiled a list in November that included every false coronavirus claim by Trump throughout 2020 and then debunked it. A Lancet Commission report published in February said the U.S. could have averted 40% of its Covid-19 deaths and blamed the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic as well as the administration’s other policies, such as its weakening of health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, as contributing factors.
As the national death toll of the coronavirus has crested half a million, Helmuth says it’s important for reporters to not lose sight of those names and faces: “It’s easy to get kind of overwhelmed and focus on the numbers. … But it’s just really important to keep showing how horribly this robs people of their loved ones, of their health.”
One Washington Post reporter allows those people to speak for themselves. National reporter Eli Saslow is the reporter behind “Voices of the Pandemic,” an oral history of who has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has featured a provider who has seen 27 people die of Covid-19 and a woman who has not yet fully recovered after becoming infected. CNN asks people to submit the stories of their lost loved ones and then shares some of them on air.
Health reporters are no exception to facing the impacts of the pandemic. While many reporters might remember the j-school mantra ‘Don’t insert yourself into the story,’ that, for many, may become impossible during a pandemic. Asian-American reporters, including Chen, have faced racist attacks, including a number of “unprintable racist emails and DMs,” she says. During his presidency, Trump often used the racist moniker “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus. Between March 19 and August 5, 2020, the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council said it received more than 2,500 reports of anti-Asian discrimination, including verbal and physical harassment.
“I am well aware that racism is alive and well in the U.S., but it is sad to see the unvarnished anger and hatred,” Chen says. In her reporting, Chen has heard grief, frustration, anger, demoralization, and fear from the people she has interviewed. “I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to carry their emotions for them and there’s often only so much I can do.”
In these instances, it’s beneficial for reporters to take a step back and breathe a little, either by closing their computers or even taking a vacation or leave. For Chen, when her loved ones tell her they can tell she is stressed, she takes a break. “If I take a week, two weeks off, nobody’s going to miss me,” she says. “We can cover for each other.”
For Pattani at Kaiser Health News, the personal and painful impacts of the pandemic have fed into her reporting. In October, she realized that the stress of the pandemic itself was exacerbating her own chronic health issues. “That led me to think about, Is this happening to other people?” She ended up writing about it, describing migraines, teeth grinding and hair loss as symptoms of severe stress and offering tips from experts on how to reduce stress. She received messages from people all over the country empathizing with her. “It was kind of the silver lining of recognizing something that was more universal than just my personal experience,” Pattani says.
But Pattani’s experience underscores the detrimental impacts that stress has on reporters. When asked what they do for self-care, nearly every health reporter interviewed said something along the lines of, “I’m still working on it.” Some mentioned pets, family, exercise, or picking up hobbies as ways to relieve stress.
As the national death toll of the coronavirus has crested half a million, it’s important for reporters to not lose sight of those names and faces
That’s how Marlene Harris-Taylor, managing producer for health news at Northeast Ohio’s ideastream, a public media service organization consisting of several television and radio channels, takes care of herself — working out and teaching herself piano, something she’s always wanted to learn. Other ways reporters can take care of themselves include setting clear boundaries between work and home, even when they work from home. That could mean not sending emails past work hours, for example. Additionally, reporters can lean on their communities, including faith communities, or their loved ones to hold them accountable when their stress levels rise and they need a break. Many therapists have also gone virtual during the pandemic, making them easier to access. The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma offers a number of resources reporters struggling as they cover the pandemic.
Harris-Taylor also warns that there’s a mental health crisis underneath the pandemic, something we may continue to see even beyond its official end.
Four in ten adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms between January and June 2019. A small survey done by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in June of journalists from international news organizations working on stories around the pandemic found that 70% reported psychological distress. In another survey, by the International Center for Journalists and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, more than 1,000 English-speaking journalists from 125 countries were asked to rank what factors they found the most professionally difficult during the pandemic; 70% put the psychological and emotional impacts of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis at the top.
Recovery may take a while and Harris-Taylor urges other reporters to get started now. “People really have to address their own stress as much as possible and understand that we’re all in the middle of a situation that’s causing chronic stress,” she says. “Chronic stress really does impact the cortisol levels, which can have long term implications.”
With a long road of recovery ahead, health reporters say news outlets must continue to utilize them, invest in them, and integrate them across the newsroom. Helmuth, who became editor in chief of Scientific American in April 2020, says that includes helping health reporters develop specific skill sets, sending them to workshops, and allowing them to build their networks. For example, the Association of Health Care Journalists offers grant opportunities for reporting projects as well as workshops that have lately centered on helping reporters gather better data on the pandemic or write about the science behind the coronavirus. Helmuth also wrote a tipsheet for reporters covering the pandemic in early March 2020.
That also means continuing the focus on how the pandemic has deepened inequities and highlighted racism in health, such as when wealthy white Los Angeles residents snapped up vaccine appointments meant for Black and Latino communities. “Health and science are important on their own,” Helmuth says. “And the things that we cover will be true and relevant a week from now, whereas a lot of the daily politics news really won’t.”