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Two of the country’s best COVID journalists share strategy and tips with fellow reporters

Two of the country’s best COVID journalists share strategy and tips with fellow reporters

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When The Atlantic writer Katherine J. Wu thinks about omicron’s peak, she considers the advice a cycling coach once gave her: When you get to the top of a high hill, don’t relax and coast down.

“Really the advice is to keep pedaling so that you can hit the end of the downslope as fast as possible and maintain your momentum,” she told the audience at a Center for Health Journalism Covering Coronavirus webinar this week. “The fact that we’ve peaked so high means there’s a really long way down.”

Wu joined STAT’s award-winning health reporter Helen Branswell to discuss how journalists can best cover the next stage in the pandemic while maintaining their own personal stamina. Amid the constantly evolving science, the two top reporters also offered tips for covering incremental findings, the omicron surge, and what may lie ahead.

Where are we now?

While some parts of the country may have reached the omicron peak, the nation isn’t out of the woods yet, Wu said. Things are still quite bad, and relaxing behaviors now could change the trajectory for the worse, she said.   

A decline in cases doesn’t mean the wave is over, Branswell cautioned. Many people will contract the virus on the downslope. “There is really a ways to go before we can think about omicron maybe being in our rearview mirror,” she said.

While the virus isn’t going away, there is optimism that it might become an endemic disease.  We aren’t at that point yet, though. And, there are still valid fears that there could be other big waves ahead fueled by new variants, Branswell said.

“I think we would be unwise to think we know all of the virus’ tricks at this point,” Branswell said.

Overwhelming information

The toughest part of the covering the pandemic has been the sheer volume of information, said Branswell, who has been reporting on COVID since January 2020.  She’s had to get used to the notion of sharing coverage responsibility with colleagues and figuring out “which lanes to drive in,” she said.

That feeling of overwhelming information is one Wu struggles with as well. She frequently fields the question: “You saw that paper/preprint/tweet, right?” She readily acknowledges it’s impossible for any single journalist to keep up with every new development.

“Having humility and open-mindedness and accepting that my mind might be changed hour by hour makes this a little more palatable,” she said.  

Right now, Wu is tracking the peak and what comes after it. How do we navigate the off ramp? Where will newly acquired immunity take us?

Branswell is interested in what will happen with current vaccines and whether they need to be updated. What happens if the vaccine is adjusted to target omicron, but another variant replaces it by the time it arrives? How will these decisions be made, and who makes them? She’s also interested in global vaccine equity, and the question of whether it’s fair to be vaccinating people in some countries a third or fourth time when others haven’t received a single dose.

Both reporters said they don’t spend a lot of time directly addressing the fire hose of misinformation and disinformation constantly circulating. For one, it’s simply too time consuming and their limited journalistic energy is best spent elsewhere.

“Think very carefully about what stories aren’t going to be written if you write yet another story why hydroxychloroquine isn’t the really the answer to the pandemic,” Branswell said.  

Be transparent, vet well  

Ambiguous or incremental findings don’t typically lead to snappy headlines. At the same time, it’s important to convey the way science works, Wu said. That’s why she tries to be transparent in her articles, stating clearly what we still don’t know and which caveats apply.

Covering science has been a steep learning curve for many journalists, especially ones that jumped into pandemic coverage from other realms such as politics where a sudden shift in views can be troublesome or a mark of inauthenticity. But as Branswell noted, in science such change is welcome when compelling new evidence emerges.   

“It’s a signal we’ve learned more,” she said.

That rapidly changing science underscores the importance of vetting new research. That can be a tricky process with so much research emerging as preprints, or research findings that are shared before they are peer reviewed. In these cases, Wu considers the risk-reward calculation of reporting on the findings. When she can, she’ll often conduct her own mini peer review, seeking expert sources to evaluate and comment on the research and methods.

Ultimately, Wu has come to the realization she’d rather be right than first. And she prioritizes reporting on a larger trend supported by multiple preprints over single findings.

There are times in the pandemic when preprints have served an important role, such as those emerging from South Africa announcing omicron’s arrival, Branswell pointed out. In those cases, she recommends taking a close look at the researchers and how much work they’ve done in the field. In general, ask yourself what advantage does the person or product get from the media coverage?

“There has to be a bigger advantage to readers, in my mind, to make it worth writing about,” Branswell said. 

Addressing burnout

Throughout the two full years of covering the pandemic, both reporters said they’ve struggled with feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted.

“I look forward to a time when it’s not this full on,” Branswell said. “I want to write about something else.”

Wu has made a conscious effort to write about other topics, at least periodically, to preserve her sanity, she said. She also relies on her colleagues and editors, logs off at a certain time each day and preserves her weekends as much as possible. Communicating sadness and anxiety is important, too.  

“The more we can share that openly, the better,” she said. “I don’t think there is anyone who just has been 100% OK through all of this.”

 **

Watch the full presentation here: 

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