Roundtable: Keeping Pace with Pandemic Coverage in the U.S.

Illustration of about a dozen people wearing white face masks, looking in different directions.
Ada daSilva/iStock

 

Of all the work friends I’ve made over the past few years, perhaps none deserve an apology more than Stalwart Stan.

Stan is my laptop, and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s taken quite the beating. On any given day, he’s supported the half-dozen-plus apps I tend to keep running—among them, processing drains like Slack and Chrome and Signal and Zoom—while pinging me reminders from my various calendars and messaging apps that come at all hours of the day. He’s helped me sift through manuscripts on preprint servers and scroll endlessly through Twitter; he’s fielded late-night and weekend tips from sources and tracked an endless stream of updates and press releases from pharma companies, government agencies, and academic institutions galore. The number of tabs he’s kept open for me at once has been ridiculous—often enough that I can no longer see what each window contains—and he does it all on little rest, never shut down or rebooted quite often enough, never complaining once.

Stan’s admirable and relentless grind, both a mirror of and aspiration for my own, has been necessary to keep pace with the unremitting news cycle of covering COVID-19 as a science journalist. The crisis, which has claimed a million lives in the United States alone, and saddled countless others with the hardships of chronic symptoms, financial and emotional loss, and severe disruptions to work and schooling, is one of the biggest stories in journalism to unfold in decades. And because of the speed at which both the virus and information about it can now travel, the news has never come faster, and has never been more difficult to digest and distill on deadline. In the U.S., especially, accurately and compassionately communicating with the public has been a challenge, amid bungled messages from the nation’s leadership and the sharp fracturing of trust in science—trends that, research has shown, appear to have exacerbated the virus’s toll. COVID-19 continues to be a story that pushes science journalism to its limits, testing reporters’ endurance, flexibility, and fleet-footedness. And it has not been easy for those who have had to write about the pandemic while living through it themselves.

Luckily, this is not a job that science journalists—or their hardworking computers—have had to endure alone. I recently caught up with some of our colleagues, who have been covering the American experience of the pandemic, to talk about the ups and downs of covering a story that never seems to hit a lull, and years into unfolding, continues to evolve in complexity and nuance. They shared how they’ve continued to capture readers’ attention through pandemic fatigue, and how they’ve found new angles and sources on a topic that has dominated the news cycle in this country for months on end. Our conversation centered on the U.S.; we’ll take a global perspective in a forthcoming article.

The journalists who participated in the roundtable are:

Arlo Pérez Esquivel, digital video producer at NOVA PBS

Chia-Yi Hou, a health writer for Changing America, a section of The Hill, and a freelance science journalist

Carolyn Y. Johnson, a health and science reporter for The Washington Post

David Lim, a health care reporter at POLITICO

Lauren Weber, a Midwest correspondent for Kaiser Health News

Marin Wolf, a health care reporter for The Dallas Morning News

 

Katherine: The past two years have been a humbling lesson in working at a breakneck pace. How quickly do you usually have to turn around stories, and how have you calibrated your reporting, writing, and fact-checking to meet tight deadlines? What do you do if new developments unfold before publication?

Arlo: “Breakneck” is definitely the right way to describe these past two years, especially in the beginning. When I think back to March [of 2020], the difficulty I remember was not only in keeping up with the barrage of new information and the daily news cycle, but also with learning how to work virtually. As we began to sink into the new normal, our digital videos could take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks depending on their scope and complexity (and how many on-location shoots we were willing to forgo for the now-accepted Zoom call footage!).

For us, what really helps with the speed is having such a close and ongoing relationship with the scientists. For example, it was through a close relationship with an antibody expert that we got a heads-up about the waning vaccine immunity [issue] sometime before it really became major news. That gave us enough time to rewrite our video and make it more timely. Also made it a real bummer.

“Scientists are used to unknowns, but this is not a comfortable or familiar space for many people. It is even harder to do this with constant daily deadlines.” — Carolyn Y. Johnson, The Washington Post

Carolyn: For me, one of the most challenging things about the last two years has been keeping up with the partial, evolving information unfolding in the world—and then scrambling to figure out a balanced, accessible way to give our best explanation of what it means (or could mean) in the moment. Scientists are used to unknowns, but this is not a comfortable or familiar space for many people. It is even harder to do this with constant daily deadlines.

At the beginning of the pandemic, when all the attention was on the public health situation, the crisis in hospitals, cruise ships, tracking the virus’s global takeover, I jumped on vaccines and therapeutics. At the time, I felt that this would be a riveting but slow side story of the pandemic—an area where my nerd knowledge would be most useful, but probably not a big part of the news flow or the story of the pandemic. Oops!!! I’d seen science rev up for other public health crises and then be ready to go by the time most people were moving on. Instead, science delivered like I never thought I would see in my lifetime. The pace and the level of interest in the news are both things that took me by surprise.

The work was galvanizing and the news was so relentless that I mainly have coped by working a lot. At a newspaper, we are pushing out stories at all times, so there isn’t typically a big problem with information becoming [obsolete] before publication. If there is new information, it becomes the next story.

Lauren: To echo Carolyn and Arlo, the sheer speed of COVID developments is something I’ve never seen before. Then again, we’ve never lived through a global pandemic that we were also covering that is the biggest story in the world.

But what that means, logistically, for all of us on the COVID beat, is a lot more fact-checking, reading, and talking to sources amid the ever-shifting sands of COVID news. So many stories require updates before publication as treatments or scientific developments break, and the pandemic makes having a multitude of sources on speed dial necessary to parse through those.

And as Carolyn said, I suspect I too may have ended up coping with this enormous world shift by working a lot—at least reporting out vital information on the fractures within the public health system felt more useful than just sitting in my apartment.

Chia-Yi: I agree with Carolyn about the unknowns. For people who are not familiar with science and the scientific process, and even those of us working in journalism and media, having unknowns loom so large is a challenge when people are hoping for something more straightforward. And like others have mentioned, developing those relationships has been important to help us put the unknowns into context for our audience.

My situation has been a little strange, since I only transitioned from being a scientist into journalism shortly before the pandemic began. It’s been a wild time, but I’ve learned a lot in the process, especially about keeping on my toes and making adjustments on the fly. It’s hard not to go into panic mode when something needs to be changed before publication, but I try to remind myself that it’s an iterative process, just like science.

“Everyone is a COVID-19 reporter now; the pandemic touches every beat.” — David Lim, POLITICO

David: Thinking back to the early days of the pandemic, I remember the moment when I learned CDC’s COVID-19 test was not performing as expected at public health laboratories. It has been a whirlwind trying to understand what decisions are being made in real time, and trying to add context so readers are equipped with the best information possible.

Everyone is a COVID-19 reporter now; the pandemic touches every beat. One interesting challenge as a health journalist for me has been attempting to pick stories where my knowledge, sourcing, and position enables a unique contribution to public understanding of the pandemic response, especially as more reporters are covering the same topics. I never thought diagnostic testing would be a mainstream focus, but it became one of the biggest storylines of the past two years.

Marin: I started covering COVID full-time in November [of 2021] and it’s been a whirlwind to say the least. Carolyn, I totally agree on the difficulty of collecting partial and evolving information, especially as new variants pop up. It’s hard to relay to readers that even scientists sometimes don’t always know what’s going on. I got in the habit of messaging some sources every day or even multiple times a day to get gut checks and real-time updates so that I felt a bit more prepared as things changed. The reporting process for COVID has felt more like teamwork between myself and researchers than any other coverage I’ve done. It can really take a village to understand such a complicated and ever-changing topic!

Katherine: Agree with all of this. Since the pandemic started, I think I have roughly doubled the number of sources I use for stories—the news changes so quickly that I feel like it’s that much more important to be thorough. I’d always rather overreport than underreport, I suppose.

“I’m frequently asking my sources, ‘Have you seen anything lately that’s changed your mind about something?’” — Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic

I also knew early on I’d never be able to write about all of COVID, so I carved out little beats for myself, with the help of my editors. Even within specific lanes, like vaccines, immunology, etc., I can’t keep pace with every preprint or tweet. So I try to set my expectations accordingly, and I’m frequently asking my sources, “Have you seen anything lately that’s changed your mind about something?”

Katherine: What have been the biggest pitfalls you’ve seen in COVID reporting in the United States? Have there been problems unique to American journalism? Are there any mistakes you made early on that you feel you’re better at now?

Chia-Yi: It’s tough because it simultaneously feels like everything is changing all the time but then also the same few topics and discussions come up repeatedly. I think for American journalism, it’s been tough to cover all the areas that are important in a sensitive and effective way because it does feel like the record is on repeat to some extent, and people may be feeling, Well, haven’t we talked about this already?

It felt like early on in the pandemic, the priority for a lot of journalism around the coronavirus was, first, what was the current state of cases/hospitalizations and where was it rising, and next, what was the latest message from authority figures and health experts. I think early on, everything felt urgent because it was urgent, so it was maybe less of a priority to lay the groundwork about context, how science works, the unknowns, why things might change, etc. But nowadays I try to keep that in mind and focus less on what people say.

Carolyn: I agree that it feels like the story is both constantly new and also quite similar and redundant, and I don’t know what the solution is for that. To draw a clumsy sports analogy—at a mainstream news organization, we usually don’t get to cover every inning of science. We might just cover the World Series or a few key games and use those stories to catch people up on the entire incremental journey up to that point. But we have covered every pitch and swing of the pandemic. I’m not even fully sure which of the lessons of covering COVID are generalizable to covering these areas in normal times.

I do believe American journalists tend to focus on the situation in … the United States, which is both natural and understandable—and a huge limitation in the context of a global public health crisis. At The Post, we are so lucky to have great colleagues in other countries. But those reporters have to cover entire countries or regions of the world, where COVID is definitely not the only or even the main news story. Figuring out how to collaborate and learn from them was key. I remember a call in … November? … where we just all sat riveted listening to our wonderful South African correspondent, Lesley Wroughton, tell us what Omicron was like, weeks before it became a theme in the United States.

Lauren: I loved something you tweeted about, Katherine, which was a call for more sources that aren’t always being quoted. Many reporters are relying on the same experts (especially ones that are big on Twitter). Part of that was due to necessity as coverage was unfolding at such rapid speeds, but it is something we should be conscious of fixing moving forward.

The other issue at hand is the echo chamber we live in as health reporters! We are all reading so much COVID news, but the average reader is coming into our stories without all that knowledge. Balancing how to best convey complex, ever-evolving information in a way that is accessible has been one thing that has bedeviled just about everyone in this pandemic.

Katherine: This seems like a great opportunity to talk about sources of information. Misinformation has been rampant throughout the pandemic; even the data coming out of government agencies, such as the CDC, isn’t always necessarily accurate or up to date. How has this influenced your coverage? What are your go-to sources of information, and how do you vet them?

“Balancing how to best convey complex, ever-evolving information in a way that is accessible has been one thing that has bedeviled just about everyone in this pandemic.” — Lauren Weber, Kaiser Health News

Lauren: That’s been one of the most frustrating parts about reporting during a pandemic in the U.S., which has such a fractured public health data system. State and federal government data points often don’t match due to conflicting timelines, and on pressing deadlines it can be difficult to parse out for the reader the data flaws. For me, I’ve found it’s absolutely vital to have sources at all levels—whether they be academics or local, state, and federal government officials—that I can call at any time to gut check such points.

I’d add that reporting out your own data—whether that be counting the number of local and state public health officials that have retired, resigned, or been fired; figuring out how many states have rolled back public health laws; or executing 50 state-public-health-office asks to learn more about how they’re counting antigen tests—is essential right now. This pandemic has 50 state responses, and it’s important to tease out those differences.

Big 50-state asks or country-wide searches are often only possible by working together with your fellow reporters—as my colleague Hannah Recht says, journalism is a team sport! We rely heavily on Google Sheets, so that we can see what each other has found while also maintaining some sense of organization.

Marin: It’s been difficult to manage the times at which different agencies report their data—Dallas’s local COVID hospitalization numbers were often reported a few days before the state’s numbers, and those data didn’t always match. Navigating so many different data sources required frequent gut-checks from researchers on which datasets to use.

Carolyn: We literally have a Slack channel devoted to parsing, questioning, and finding the trends in the COVID numbers. I’m a mere spectator. Some of the issues Lauren and Marin outlined in figuring out a standardized way to track things at the regional level are multiplied at the national level. We are so lucky to have a person who literally thinks about the numbers and their nuances all the time. She knows which states report data when, can flag when a backlog of cases or deaths will create aberrations, and can spot trends.

Katherine: How are you still finding fresh sources and new angles, two-plus years in? Do you feel like you can keep up with what your sources are talking about?

David: One of the big challenges with sourcing during the pandemic was that in-person meetings [have largely not occurred], which obviously impacted our ability to meet new sources. Following up with sources on a weekly basis to try to understand what they are working on often yields story ideas. And I try to end every interview by asking if there are other smart people I should be talking to to get a better understanding of the context around an issue.

When I was a brand-new reporter one of my colleagues made a recommendation that I still try to adhere to: Try to reach out to a handful of people you haven’t spoken to before every week, even if that means a cold call or email.

Carolyn: Preprints have been critical during the pandemic, but there are so, so, so many. I once was interviewing a scientist, and at the end of it, she scolded me that in the time we had talked there had been at least 10 papers published and she needed to get back to reading those now, thank you, goodbye.

On that note—the most helpful thing to me has been to know what the scientists I talk to are reading and tracking. Knowing which papers they are watching, which labs they’re waiting to see results from and what startles them or puzzles them is so helpful. I’ve also found myself building long-term relationships with some of my sources, which has been helpful. On top of that, I try to digest all the different sources of info, keep a sense of proportion, ask smarter people what they think, look for similar findings that reinforce one another. It’s the same process as typical science journalism, but faster and more nerve-wracking.

Katherine: The big picture of the pandemic is complicated—no two places are experiencing the same virus in exactly the same way. How important is the local story to the big picture?

Arlo: Personally, I see this as being an inherent challenge of pandemic coverage. We have the statistics of the pandemic, but without local, human-centered stories, these numbers can be misinterpreted.

This developed to be even more of an issue as the pandemic became politicized. State actors gained an incentive to keep the official infection rates low and the vaccination rates high, even if those rates may not fully reflect reality. To further complicate the issue, some communities distrust the state-run institutions that are in charge of dealing with the pandemic. In other words, communities whose perspective never makes it into the national narrative.

“It was through covering the lived realities of local communities that I gained a better understanding of the national story, and thus could explain it with the nuance it deserved.” — Arlo Pérez Esquivel, NOVA PBS

I experienced this personally when I covered the situation in Michoacán, Mexico. Mexican officials were proud of their low national infection rates, and I came into that story expecting to cover the COVID policies behind that success. It was only after I started spending time there that I realized that the national numbers were only low because people in the community were actively hiding their infections. So in my experience, it was through covering the lived realities of local communities that I gained a better understanding of the national story, and thus could explain it with the nuance it deserved.

This does not mean that the experience I had with one local community of western Mexico applies to the whole country. In fact, larger cities may have very different experiences than the rural community I covered, and those cities account for a much larger portion of Mexico’s population. However, it is a reality for a countless number of people, and it is a perspective that should help dictate the national story in order to get a clearer view of what the bigger picture is.

Carolyn: The regional variability of the pandemic is definitely a challenge, though I don’t have any examples as vivid as Arlo’s! I mostly cover science, but I think there is the same split-screen effect—where individuals’ behavior and attitudes can tell a different story.

Two examples: I visited a BSL-3 lab in Colorado in early summer of [2021]—it was very shortly after they had reopened the campus. [The times when I conducted my interviews] were the first times that some of these people had seen each other in person for months. Masks were coming off in society and everyone was ready for their hot vaxxed summer, but inside this lab, nothing had really changed. They were plugging away, putting in long hours, worried about all kinds of future scenarios while friends were asking why they were still working on vaccines.

A flipside of that has been the variants. Scientists take the variants very seriously, but their response isn’t hysteria—it’s just so dialed-in and purposeful and almost routine at this point. Unknowns are a pretty comfortable space for scientists. So when the hype is big in the world, scientists are worried, awake, working very hard, but the work itself is ultrarational—and some even describe it as kind of a familiar drill, even when the variant itself is unfamiliar.

Lauren: Could not agree more with Arlo that it’s important to get that lived experience from all over the country! It varies so much from town to town—and that’s not even accounting for the state-to-state differences. It’s one thing to write about public health measures in a broad sense. It’s another to depict their personal impact.

A series of interviews that sticks out for me involved a public health official in Kansas who could not convince her community, despite rising COVID cases and deaths in late 2020, to institute a mask mandate. She had spent 42 years in this small town in Kansas, and yet her neighbors were calling her a “sheep” for her professional opinion.

She could not convince her husband to implement a mask mandate in their family hardware store. As I was reporting out the story, she and her husband contracted COVID. Then her elderly mother got sick. She was put on a ventilator and died. The family hardware store still did not have a mask mandate.

Katherine: Are readers still engaged and interested in pandemic content? Are experts inside and outside of science still engaged and interested? How is that affecting your coverage, and also your mental health?

Katherine: I’ll speak to this a bit. We’ve definitely noticed a huge drop-off in readers’ interest in the pandemic, in part because other new items have risen to the fore. But also, readers are just sick of it. And as we’ve discussed, it’s so hard to find new stories, new sources, new angles.

It’s tough not to feel defeated, but I’m trying to stay revitalized by lacing in other beats when I can (I still love writing about the natural world) and venting, a lot, to my coworkers. And my cats. I’m really into my cats.

Chia-Yi: I think our audience is selectively engaged. They seem to still be interested in newsy COVID stories, but less so in the science-y stories, at least for us. For some people, I’m guessing they may be limiting how much coronavirus content they take in so that they can stay on top of the latest news but not get too bogged down.

I really feel for experts these days. They want to get the message out there and have their voices be heard, but I totally understand if they are feeling burned out and want to get back to other projects. One source I contacted recently said in an email that she didn’t know what else she could say on the topic that she had not already said.

“I really feel for experts these days. They want to get the message out there and have their voices be heard, but I totally understand if they are feeling burned out and want to get back to other projects.” — Chia-Yi Hou, The Hill

Over the past two years I’ve gone through some big dips in my mental health, but it hasn’t been all bad. I have a really bad subconscious habit of tying my mood to my productivity, which I’ve been trying to get out of. Lately, in my free time I’ve been knitting a lot and going climbing a few times a week. And I’ve been very protective of that nonwork time, and I think that’s super important. I have a cat, too! I’ve been collecting funny photos of my cat and my sister taking naps in similar positions near each other. 😂

I’ve also found so much camaraderie in a Slack community for journalists of color, and I’m part of the group organizing a virtual conference for that community, which has been fun to work on outside of regular work.

Lauren: Readers, to me, seem to be pretty tired of COVID news. And I get it—who wants to be confronted with the sheer reality of the death toll, societal division, and *waves hands wildly*​ everything else. Sources are also tired of talking about the thing that has consumed not only their professional lives but their personal ones—as it has for all of us.

But the bottom line is it can’t be escaped—it touches every part of coverage, even if it’s not a “COVID” story. The loss of so many people, the federal funds that are (or are not) trickling down, the utter chaos of it all—you can’t get away from it.

I consider myself incredibly lucky for the solace I’ve taken in my fantastic colleagues. For all of 2020, my coworkers on our AP/KHN project saw more of my apartment on Zoom than anyone else! As a self-identified extreme extrovert, the isolation of COVID was a struggle. But we developed a collegial bond unlike any other, and we constantly are looking out for each other when it comes to burnout.

Marin: I couldn’t agree more with Lauren. We’ll all be better prepared and better sourced on the other side of the pandemic because of the quick and broad work done to cover COVID. I’m excitedly starting to go back to these sources for non-COVID stories. The pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon, but I’m eager to take advantage of [any lulls in] COVID cases to work on story ideas I’d previously abandoned for the sake of the virus.

“We’ll all be better prepared and better sourced on the other side of the pandemic because of the quick and broad work done to cover COVID.” — Marin Wolf, The Dallas Morning News

Covering the Omicron-variant wave proved to me how important effective medical and scientific communication is. It also proved that my teammates and I are capable of working in uncertain and quickly evolving situations. Any reporter covering COVID will be more than prepared for future crises down the line.

Carolyn: I do think the receding urgency of news is going to be cognitively difficult to handle. Right now we are still in an awkward period where there’s still a lot of news—so that pace and need to keep on top is still there, but interest has dropped off.

I hope that the experience [of covering the pandemic] will reinvigorate interest in [science and health] journalism that is so central and important but sometimes is treated like a niche.

 

 

Katherine J. Wu Courtesy of Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a staff writer at The Atlantic, a senior editor at The Open Notebook, and a senior producer for The Story Collider. She previously served as a science reporter for The New York Times. She won a Science in Society journalism award in 2021 and the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award for Young Science Journalists in 2020, and has a PhD in microbiology from Harvard University.

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