Over the course of a journalist’s career, local, national, or international events can suddenly thrust them into covering beats for which they have no previous experience. Political reporters might have found themselves drowning in the minutiae of health insurance when the Affordable Care Act was debated and then enacted. After a school shooting, an education reporter might find themselves delving into newly emerging research on gun violence as a public health threat. And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, reporters from all fields, many with no experience in covering health or science, are now expected to file stories on health topics such as epidemiology, vaccine development, and drug trials. And while there’s a surging demand for journalists who can cover these topics well, there is a dearth of reporters with health journalism experience. In a recent survey of 73 journalists from international news organizations conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto, only 4 percent had experience reporting on health, while 74 percent said that they’re now reporting health-related stories.
Reporters new to the health and science beat often find themselves at a loss. They may have never read a scientific paper, and may not know how journals’ embargo systems work. They may be unfamiliar with statistical concepts such as effect size or relative risk, and they may not know how to begin reporting when they are faced with a study that seems incomprehensible at first glance. They may be unsure how many experts to talk to when covering a new study, or how to find the right kinds of experts, or what questions are essential to ask.
To help reporters new to covering health get off to the right start, The Open Notebook asked 18 health journalists:
What practical advice do you have for covering the health beat? What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
Knvul Sheikh, freelance health and science reporter
Rely on your past expertise. If you were a climate reporter before covering COVID-19, think of how the climate and air pollution may be affecting different populations and their risk for developing disease. If you wrote business and finance news, see how you can use those insights to follow the big pharmaceutical players developing treatments and vaccines. Reporting on the health beat requires some of the same skills as any other area of journalism: finding interesting stories, contacting experts in the field, keeping a list of useful “B matter,” or facts you can insert into every piece, and being ready to adapt to new information. Scientists, doctors, and health reporters are all learning about this crisis as we go!
Eric Boodman, general assignment reporter at STAT
Before every interview, I try to give myself a pep talk: A pause, in the craziness of the day, to remind me what it is I’m about to do. I give myself permission to sound stupid, to talk just enough so that I understand, to ask who else could help complete the picture being sketched out. There’s a certain irony in saying that I wish I’d known to do this from the beginning: “To feel a bit more experienced, feel comfortable sounding like a newb.” But it’s true. Yes, prepare; yes, read the paper beforehand. Yet I also need a moment’s reminder to be deeply, genuinely, little-kid curious.
The reason for this ritual is to make sure I don’t get swept up in nice-sounding gobbledygook and only later realize I had no clue what the person was talking about. I want to ask basic questions. I want to give the person ample room to talk. Often, they’ll answer questions I never would have thought to ask. (The smell of bedbug feces? Musky and sweet.) But if I don’t understand what they just explained, I should interrupt and say so. If I think I understand, I should repeat back what I learned, to double-check.
As Carl Zimmer, one of my first teachers, put it, better to be corrected in the interview than in print.
Finally, at the risk of making too many calls, as I often do, I remind myself to ask about other sources. A grad student who did the field- or bench-work? A patient? Some wacky technician? Only then am I ready for an interview.
Kat Eschner, freelance health and science reporter
Take the time to register for journalistic access to academic journals and databases like EurekAlert!, Nature, ScienceDirect, and others, and make a bookmarks folder of the links to the journalist login page for all (I also use a password keeper to store all my passwords). That way, when you need to look at studies on an unfolding topic, you can quickly get access to go beyond what’s in abstracts.
Jane C. Hu, freelance science journalist
Find the right experts for your stories. While it may seem like, say, a doctor should have expertise on health, it really depends on their specialty, and whether they’re actively doing research on the issue at hand. It may be the case that a different kind of researcher you hadn’t considered actually has more-relevant knowledge; you might not think about asking a mechanical engineer about health issues. But when I was writing about COVID droplet transmission, one expert another scientist recommended was a fluid-dynamics engineer who had recently modeled how droplets travel. I’ve also seen the opposite happen—I’ve seen stories in which people rely on doctors who don’t have any specific expertise about the science underlying the topic.
Angela Chen, science journalist and contributing editor at Catapult Magazine
My answer might be more particular to health tech than straight health, but my tip is to always talk to the people for whom the technology is intended. Health tech is an enormous and lucrative market, and there are a lot of ambitious people who think they know what a population needs without ever speaking to that population. (This is especially true when it comes to technology for older folks and people with disabilities). Many times, I’ve reported on health tech that seems like a good idea, only to find out that it doesn’t solve any real problem for the people who are its supposed customers.
Josie Glausiusz, freelance health and science reporter
Keep up-to-date with all the press releases sent out by major journals—Nature, Science (EurekAlert!), the Journal of the American Medical Association, The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, The BMJ—and follow them on Twitter.
Amanda Morris, bioscience reporter at The Arizona Republic
Approach all studies and research findings with a critical eye—don’t just assume that a study finding means something significant. Remember to put studies into context to see how the study was conducted. You should look up other related studies to see if they’ve shown similar results and do research on the things being studied so that you can ask critical questions. You should also think about the sample size used in the study and whether that is a significant enough sample size to draw conclusions from, as well as the diversity/makeup of the study. Another thing to look at is whether any outside variables could’ve influenced results and whether the study was properly controlled.
Studies do not equal facts. A good way to put it is—what is the study actually looking at and saying? Could there be other reasons the study got the results that it did? Was the test conducted in a way that reduced potential errors or could there be discrepancies in the data? Is this study actually significant?
Julia Rosen, freelance science journalist
No matter how much a simple answer is needed or desired, it may not always exist when covering science or health. In those cases, scientific debate or uncertainty can feel like a frustrating problem that stands in the way of writing a good story. However, in my opinion, that just means you need to make the uncertainty the story. It’s important to remember that your job is to accurately convey the current state of scientific knowledge, even if it’s messy.
Sarah Kliff, investigative reporter (focused on health care) for The New York Times
Always, always, always get a copy of the medical bill if you’re writing a story that has to do with the price of care. I’ve written a lot of these stories, where patients’ memories of what they were charged, and which provider charged it, are inaccurate. I’ve had patients think, for example, that a bill from their doctor was actually a bill from the hospital. This is why I always make sure patients have their billing documents available before I go forward with a story.
Jill U. Adams, health columnist for The Washington Post
Even though you’re interviewing expert sources, that doesn’t mean you should believe everything they say. Scientists are people, with biases and assumptions and potentially conflicts of interest. If an expert says, “We know that X causes Y,” ask them how they know. Or ask them if there’s a good review article or a classic scientific paper that shows that causal relationship. And, of course, talk to a couple other sources to see if the expert knowledge is widely held, or is something that scientists disagree on.
Carl Zimmer, health and science columnist for The New York Times
Talk to lots of people. It’s very easy to talk to just one scientist and come away with a narrow view of the field as a whole. A single-source story can turn out to be a disaster.
Sandeep Ravindran, freelance science writer
Follow scientists on Twitter in any field you’re reporting on, and not just professors but also graduate students and postdocs, who are often far more active. Doing this can help you find better and more diverse sources.
Set up Google and PubMed alerts for specific scientists and keywords, so you immediately know about any new publications in a particular field of interest.
Go beyond press releases; read actual papers, of course, but more than that, look through a journal’s table of contents for other papers beyond those highlighted by the journal’s press office.
Always interview multiple scientists who were not involved in a study to get a better sense of its importance. This kind of vetting is even more important for preprint publications from arXiv and bioRxiv.
Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight
Give yourself some grace. It’s okay to not cover absolutely everything, and remember that the places you see hitting every single story have many reporters on the case. If you’re a small staff, or just one freelancer working alone, it’s easy to feel like you’re failing because you don’t have stories coming out daily. That’s okay. Focus on what interests you the most, where your curiosity and concern lies, and tackle those issues the best you can. And that is good work.
Melinda Wenner Moyer, science journalist and contributing editor at Scientific American and a columnist for Slate
Don’t be afraid to ask simple, even elementary questions during interviews. Sometimes those are the best questions. And it’s okay (and important!) to ask sources to re-explain things you don’t quite understand.
Kate Gammon, freelance science writer
Follow scientists on Twitter to listen to their inside conversations—you’ll get context and learn who works with whom.
Roxanne Khamsi, freelance science journalist
Always read the methods section of a scientific paper. This is where the “action” is—it’s how the sausage was made. I wish there were more detail in the methods sections—some of them are kind of skimpy. But it’s important to know, for example, how many mice were in the experiment or how many people volunteered for the clinical trial. If there’s not enough detail in the methods section, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call for more information.
Seth Mnookin, journalist and professor of science writing and the director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT
I have three tips. First: Admit when you don’t understand something. A lot of bad health and science stories are the result of reporters regurgitating inaccurate information that’s fed to them (often via press release).
Second: Find someone who knows more than you do and take advantage of their knowledge. This could be an editor or a colleague or a source who’s willing to help you out. This is especially important when you’re starting out.
Third: Drill into your brain the fact that reporting on health and science is different from reporting on business or metro or sports stories. You can’t rely on instinct or common sense to guide you.
Bryn Nelson, freelance writer
As problematic as Twitter can be, it’s a great way to cultivate sources, especially for COVID-19 reporting. Use hashtag and keyword searches to see who’s actively and intelligently discussing the science, then check out their background to make sure they have the necessary chops and relevance to the story you’re writing. Journalists have compiled source lists on Twitter as well—these can be great for diversifying your source pool. For COVID-19 stories, my rule of thumb has been to include three or more independent voices. Including them helps ensure that new studies (and, in particular, preprints, which haven’t been peer reviewed at all and should be treated with caution) get a critical appraisal. The science is moving incredibly quickly in this pandemic, and scientists don’t always get it right, so having smart and independent experts weigh in can save you from being taken in by bad science.
Shira Feder is a journalist who has written stories about culture and science for Vox, The Daily Beast, Business Insider, The Forward, HuffPo, and others. She is currently a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @shirafeder.