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LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong and NYT’s Pam Belluck talk journalism and COVID-19

LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong and NYT’s Pam Belluck talk journalism and COVID-19

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Patrick Soon-Shion, file photo.
Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, in a file photo.
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised an unending sea of challenges for journalists, from a firehose of preliminary scientific studies to the incredibly complex interplay between the virus, race and social inequities. Like the virus, these coverage challenges aren’t going away any time soon.

To better understand how two boldfaced names from the journalism firmament are thinking through some of these issues, reporters attending the 2021 National Fellowship this week heard from New York Times health and science writer Pam Belluck and Los Angeles Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong for a moderated conversation on Monday via Zoom. 

Belluck is an award-winning journalist who most recently has covered long COVID for The New York Times. Soon-Shiong, meanwhile, has found himself in an unusual and unique position during the pandemic: In addition to being a newspaper owner, he’s a physician, billionaire philanthropist, and head of both technology companies Nantworks and ImmunityBio, which is developing a new kind of COVID-19 vaccine. He tries to draw a line between his publishing and entrepreneurial hats, avoiding Los Angeles Times newsroom reporters when speaking out about the pandemic. Instead, he’s turned to the outlet’s “Second Opinion” project, hosting a video series that aims to provide factual information about the coronavirus but has raised some eyebrows over his potential conflicts of interest.

Tough decisions, new formats 

Medical and science journalists normally decide what studies to cover based, in part, on the quality of journals those studies appear in and whether they were first reviewed by other scientists, Belluck noted. But during the pandemic, she and her colleagues have been “bombarded” with a series of unreviewed studies from preprint servers such as medRxiv.

How do journalists strike a balance between sharing urgent new science while also ensuring it’s reputable and rigorous? Belluck said she’s had to be “a little bit more flexible” about the studies she chooses to cover during the pandemic. With preprints, she’s especially careful to explain the limitations of the study and highlight what questions remain unanswered by science.

Journalists have also had to decide whether to cover rumors. “Are we just giving oxygen to something that we shouldn’t elevate by giving it a platform?” Belluck asked. If a falsehood seems to be getting attention, or even influencing personal or political decisions, it’s often worth covering, she said. To that end, the paper’s ongoing work on viral misinformation has addressed the lack of links between vaccines and infertility and the insufficiency of mouthwash to prevent COVID-19.

But not everyone reads The New York Times and Los Angeles Times — and that newspaper-eschewing crowd includes many of those who are most in need of accurate information about the pandemic, Soon-Shiong said. His video series is one such attempt to reach varied audiences. Belluck also described how The New York Times has increasingly provided information in a variety of formats, such as graphics and maps, videos, explainers and Q&As, in the hopes of reaching a broader audience. (Both publications have also made much of their COVID-19 coverage available free of charge.) 

Both newspapers are also working towards more inclusive coverage of communities and demographics affected by the pandemic and other issues. Soon-Shiong, who is ethnically Chinese but grew up in South Africa during apartheid, highlighted the mostly unconscious racism in American culture. The words journalists use are important, he said. For example, Soon-Shiong said he once referred to youth protests in Soweto, South Africa in 1976 as “riots” during a conversation, and was corrected by his counterpart to use the word “uprising” instead. That one-word change provides a very different slant when referring to the events. “We need to think a little bit more, one level of abstraction deeper, about those words,” he said.

The next big stories

Soon-Shiong and Belluck shared several topics they think deserve further coverage. On the science side, Soon-Shiong thinks not enough attention has been given to small extracellular sacs in the bloodstream, called exosomes, that may help the coronavirus move throughout the body. They could assist the virus to spread from the lungs to other organs such as the brain, almost the way cancer spreads from one location to the rest of the body, Soon-Siong said. 

He also said that while existing vaccines function by creating antibodies that recognize the virus, it’s also important to activate immune cells that directly destroy infected body cells. Formulating vaccines to include not just the spike but also internal viral proteins can promote this kind of response. (This approach is precisely what Soon-Shiong’s ImmunityBio is doing, illustrating the challenge he faces in keeping his interests siloed.)

Long COVID may affect up to one-third of people who survive the infection, Belluck noted, and she highlighted two dimensions of that story going forward: The first is the diagnosis and recognition — or lack thereof — by clinicians who may be unfamiliar with the syndrome. Second, there will be lots of stories to tell about how the syndrome impacts people’s lives going forward, particularly around work. “Almost every aspect of life that you can think of will be affected, and is being affected, by these issues,” Belluck said.

Vaccines and public health decisions also remain rich fodder for reporters. Soon-Shiong noted that the glut of vaccines snapped up by wealthy nations such as the U.S. is creating huge global inequities that could have disastrous impacts, including the emergence of more dangerous variants. And both speakers agreed that past decisions made by the government and CDC — such as the surprise spring guidance that allowed vaccinated individuals to go unmasked — deserve a second look. “Is politics more important than human life?” asked Soon-Shiong.

It’s also important to understand the complexity of people’s decisions to take a vaccine or not, said Belluck: “It’s not a one-size-fits all situation.” Focusing on the specific concerns of different vaccine-hesitant populations, such as pregnant women, is a way to cover the topic responsibly, she suggested. 

While there have been large and persistent racial disparities with COVID vaccines, the effects of structural racism don’t end there. People of color are also broadly underrepresented in clinical trials, are less likely to have health insurance, and may not have the ability to seek medical care or have one’s experiences respected by a physician. These inequities impact not just medicine but society overall, said Belluck. “I think it’s a really important framework to keep in mind.”

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