Highlights of live Reddit discussion on how journalists are tackling COVID-19 coverage

On April 1, 2020, the NASW Journalism Committee hosted a live discussion on Reddit about how science journalists are tackling COVID-19 coverage. Three journalists on the front lines of COVID-19 reporting — Laura Helmuth (The Washington Post), Helen Branswell (STAT), and Carl Zimmer (The New York Times) — answered questions posted to Reddit’s r/science board.

People used the opportunity to query the journalists on many basic hows: How do they keep up on a complicated and changing situation? How do they write about it in an understandable-to-everyone way? How do they get their information? How do they know who to trust? How do they counter misinformation and partisanship?

The conversation showed that Reddit users had many insightful and probing questions about how science journalism gets done, as well as many concerns about media coverage of the pandemic. Laura, Helen and Carl’s responses helped to spread important information about science reporting and to build trust with a science-savvy set of readers.

We wanted to share some highlights with NASW members. Questions have been edited for length and clarity; the entire 467-comment Reddit thread can be viewed here. A series of live Tweets from the event is also available on Thread Reader.

Themes

The scientific information firehose
Simplifying coronavirus complexity
Finding sources
Misinformation and missing information
A global story
Newspapers: Headlines & paywalls
COVID and courage

The scientific information firehose

Q: How do you cope with the information fatigue? Just as a regular person paying attention to the virus information coming in, I'm finding it to be a lot. It's a mix between vague doomy almost panic and jaded overstimulated active ignoring for me. How are you dealing with it being your job to be flooded with all this information 24/7, and how has it changed your perspective on how people in general deal with stressful situations?

Carl: I will say that it is easier to keep focused when you're writing about Neanderthals instead of a pandemic that is washing over your own community. I have started to give myself strict boundaries to how much time I spend letting the latest news wash over me. It can be very upsetting, and for taking care of my own family, I'm already aware of the key things to do. (Social distancing, hand-washing, etc.)

When I work on a story about COVID-19, I zero in on the information I need for that story rather than trying to vacuum up everything on Twitter with a COVID-19 hashtag. It's not just exhausting, but it leads to bad reporting. I would say to everyone that they should employ good information hygiene, and don't feel like spending an extra four hours a day reading rumors will do you any additional good.

Laura: It's a huge challenge. Lots of health and science reporters have been working virtually nonstop for three months now (nights, weekends, early mornings). One hard thing from the beginning is that we knew this was going to be awful. We've been publishing stories for decades about the dangers of pandemics and how public health systems are not prepared. This is the most important ongoing story of our careers, so you feel like you can't stop or even slow down. I spend a lot of my time as a manager-editor trying to get reporters to eat, sleep, take a walk, take even a single day off.

**

Q: Any time there is a global situation, information will come [in] fast and confusing. As a journalist, how do you communicate changing understandings, predictions, and recommendations without undermining your credibility? One example I'm thinking of is that early on experts asked that people who aren't sick to forgo masks because they should be reserved for people who are ill or healthcare workers. Now that we understand there is a long period where people have no symptoms but could still infect others, there seems to be a shift in accepting that even relatively simple home sewn masks worn by everyone could reduce the spread of COVID-19. Yet there is still a lot of confusing advice about this (ex: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/would-everyone-wearing-face-masks-help-us-slow-pandemic). How do you help the public sort through all of this and trust recommendations as they change?

Laura: This is one of the hardest parts about covering science as a journalist — explaining again and again that it's an iterative, self-correcting process, and that even when everybody does everything right some findings won't hold up over time. (Not to mention fraud, p-hacking, file drawer effect, etc.) I think it can be respectful to readers and defuse some frustration and confusion if we say more explicitly: what [researchers] know today, why that's different from what they thought yesterday, and what they still don't know and hope to find out tomorrow.

**

Q: There has been a decades-long reduction of science reporting capacity at local newspapers and TV stations -- but now those places are crucial to covering COVID with the regional variations of the disease. How are those journalists, especially those who have never covered science before, being trained to cover this pandemic?

Helen: That's a real challenge. The first outbreak I ever covered was SARS in 2003. I was based in Toronto, which was very badly hit. I knew nothing about infectious diseases transmission, R-noughts, airborne vs droplet, so many things. It was a very steep learning curve that a lot of journalists are on now. The way I learned is that doctors and researchers taught me. They gave me their time and answered my questions. I'm grateful to this day. I hope reporters on the learning curve are finding people who similarly understand that the way to inform the public is to inform reporters.

 

Simplifying coronavirus complexity

Q: How do you explain complicated medical results in the published literature [in the most accurate way] possible while making them accessible to the general public?

Carl: A heap of technical details does not help people understand. Even people with PhDs in one field may not understand the details from another. My own strategy is to zero in on the most important message from a study, and then give a sense to readers of how researchers got to that conclusion. But you cannot include every technical detail to do so. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

**

Q: How do American journalists go about selecting their daily vernacular, in reference to COVID-19? Does management/administration typically provide guidance and if so, how often and via what modality? Is such guidance normally station-wide? Network-wide? Corporation-wide?

Laura: At The Post we created and keep updating a style guide entry on what various coronavirus-related terms mean and guidance on how to use and define them within stories. Very few people in the newsroom knew the terms “PPE” or "flatten the curve" or "social distancing" a few months ago, and now pretty much every department (sports, arts, business) is learning a bunch of new jargon.

**

Q: With social media, it appears misinformation spreads faster than facts and people seem to shut down with well-written lengthy scientific articles. As I study towards becoming a scientist myself, how can I better communicate dense scientific material to people in a way that is both more interesting, concise and relatable to the general public?

Carl: Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, I developed some guidelines out of my experience as a teacher: https://carlzimmer.com/science-writing-guidelines-and-guidance/. I hope they're useful to you.

 

Finding sources

Q: Where do you get your information?

Carl: Just speaking for myself, I scan preprint servers, journal websites, and Twitter feeds from the best COVID-19 experts. I also reach out to scientists to find out who's doing what. This isn't the sort of thing you'd want to do as a reader of news — it's just how I for one help write the news.

**

Q: So many people with no expertise in infectious disease epidemiology are communicating/promoting misinformation about predictive models for infection rates and death rates, often with great influence at even the highest levels. I'm thinking of, for example: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/the-contrarian-coronavirus-theory-that-informed-the-trump-administration but also people with much less reach who may be influential in their own spheres. I'm seeing content from these non-experts on both ends of the spectrum — ranging from presenting poorly assembled data and projections that indicate this whole thing is overblown on one side, to fear-mongering on the other. How can actual, trained epidemiologists reclaim the attention of journalists and trust of the public to communicate accurate information about their predictions and models? Who do you go to for trustworthy information?

Carl: Those trained epidemiologists certainly have my journalistic attention. But that hasn't stopped a lawyer like Richard Epstein from gaining attention from prominent politicians. (I would also point out that the journalist who interviewed Epstein for The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner, did the world a great journalistic service by showing how error-ridden and unsubstantiated Epstein's claims are.)

**

Q: In previous outbreaks, the CDC was front and center in the public eye. This time around, not so much. Is this vacuum the result of legal changes, funding cuts, or something else? Under more... conventional leadership, what specific things would the CDC be doing that they are not doing now?

Laura: Those are great questions, and we're trying to find out more about the CDC's role and what info the Task Force is working from. In an article a week and a half ago, which feels like a year and a half ago, Lena H. Sun reported on CDC seeming to be sidelined. As Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told her: “What are the scientists projecting going forward? What is the rationale for measures being taken? We’re kind of getting that by proxy,” Inglesby said, referring to briefings by the task force. “But it would be valuable to hear directly from the CDC.”

Helen: The CDC is actively working on the outbreak, helping states. Early on it was communicating to the public through regular press conferences. There hasn’t been one since March 9. The CDC scheduled and had to cancel a couple after that and hasn’t even tried that for several weeks. They need clearance from Washington to hold a briefing and they have been denied that clearance.

**

Q: There was a great piece from Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins yesterday that lays out steps for returning from quarantine. https://www.politico.com/news/agenda/2020/03/30/social-distancing-game-plan-154915. My question is this: do you think reporting on the progress of issues like these has been sacrificed at the expense of our daily presidential feed of self-congratulations and media-shaming?

Helen: I reported yesterday on 2 reports attempting to chart the path to normalizing society. It's here: https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/29/two-new-road-maps-lay-out-possible-paths-to-end-coronavirus-lockdowns/. I then monitored 90 minutes of the White House briefing. I didn't write about it.

**

Q: How are journalists thinking about pre-prints during the pandemic? Some scientists are arguing that a pandemic amplifies the risks of public pre-prints, since the public desire for answers and journalists' incentives to satisfy that desire might route around the peer review process and cause substantial harm. Yet other scientists argue that when the stakes are high, speed matters more than verification. How are your publications thinking about this?

Laura: The Washington Post health and science reporters have covered several pre-prints, but we're being very cautious about how we do so. We always do a form of peer review when we cover new studies by contacting outside experts for comment. For pre-prints, we contact more people than usual and put lots of caveats in the story about how it hasn't been peer-reviewed and explain that we're covering the paper because the science is moving so quickly. But it's always a relief to see something we covered when it was in pre-print later end up published in a top-tier journal.

Carl: Pre-prints have been treacherous ground now for a couple years. Some of them will end up in peer-reviewed journals a few weeks or months later in pretty much the same form, so there's no point in waiting to report them. But some stinkers can get through. Now these differences are all the more urgent. I have reported on a COVID-19 preprint on drug target research, but only after thoroughly vetting the team that was doing the work. You have to do your own informal peer review, pulling in outside experts if you can. And it's always important to stress in articles (and even on Twitter) that preprints are not fixed truth — they're not even peer reviewed yet.

 

Misinformation and missing information

Q: Hi, I am not a journalist, but I find the way the information is being reported on the pandemic is abysmal. How can we get more accurate scientific data for this crisis disseminated to the general public?

Carl: As science journalists, we have to work with researchers to make sure that we convey accurate information that isn't overly technical, so that a broad audience can make use of it. That's made more difficult by the fact that this is a very new virus, the biology of which is still somewhat mysterious. And while we can work as hard as we can to put out reliable information, it's not as if we can put a stop to unreliable information flowing around. This has been a long-running problem, with issues like vaccines and global warming. Unfortunately, it's become incredibly intense with COVID-19.

I think the public can help by pointing out to friends when information is reliable or not. If someone urgently sends you a note from a friend of a friend of a friend who supposedly is an expert about how to test yourself for COVID-19, gently explain to them why they shouldn't accept such things at face value.

Helen: I'm sorry you find the reporting abysmal. I'm actually in awe of a lot of it. There is some very smart journalism being done. It's important to keep in mind the science is still evolving. There are questions that remain unanswered. So things like whether truly asymptomatic people, people who never develop symptoms, are playing a big role in transmission — that is still not known.

**

Q: Do you feel like this is the beginning of the end for news as we know it? I don't think anyone trusts anything anymore, and 'truth' seems nothing more than a philosophic quirk. With no media to trust and no government to trust, how can the masses ever be expected to handle these types of massive issues coherently and sensibly?

Carl: I don't think that most people have given up on truth — they're just overrun with information. A free press is vital to providing the best information to the public — whether by explaining new scientific research or exposing bad actions by people in power. Unfortunately, the COVID-19-fueled economic crisis is making the long-running crisis in journalism even more dire. I take some comfort in the fact that The New York Times and a number of other publications have been gaining more readers. But we need new solutions for local journalism. If you want good reporting, it doesn't come for free.

**

Q: We've seen rampant misinformation about potential treatments and cures for COVID-19 spreading online, through media coverage, and from political leaders. How can news organizations and journalists improve coverage of preliminary clinical results to minimize overzealous claims of efficacy? What role should journalists play in fact-checking peer-reviewed studies when there are serious concerns about the legitimacy of a published work?

Helen: The media outlet I write for — www.statnews.com — and the media outlets I read have been very careful to avoid the hype on possible therapeutics. I have actually seen a lot of criticism on Twitter about the media’s coverage of the claims about hydroxychloroquine, with people complaining we’re actually overly negative. I don’t agree. I think most of the coverage I’ve seen has been prudent and suggests until drugs are studied it’s impossible to know if they increase the chances of survival.

**

Q: It seems like news organizations responsibly covering potential COVID-19 therapeutics are stuck in an impossible situation where all their efforts to moderate expectations are undone by a single tweet or quote. Is there really anything that can be done to effectively deal with this?

Helen: It is a huge challenge. The politicalization of science and data in this pandemic is stunning. And very, very dangerous.

**

Q: As science journalists, do you find yourselves having to be more delicate and diplomatic around areas where politics intrudes into science, or has it always been like this and I'm just naive?

Helen: For me this is new and unpleasant territory. Facts are facts. Deaths are deaths. People struggling to [breathe] are people who may die. Virus doesn't care which way they vote.

**

Q: What would be the most useful COVID-pandemic journalism beat right now, that isn't being covered?

Helen: I don't know if "useful" is the right word, but I'd like to see more coverage of marginalized communities. The homeless, for instance. This is going to be devastating for that community.

 

A global story

Q: Have journalists been keeping topics like human right violations in mind as they cover the responses of governments to the pandemic? Billions of people are essentially having their freedom of movement, liberty, peaceful assembly and association, right to work and have privacy, etc. curtailed en masse, so we are currently dealing with the largest restriction on basic human rights in history. The media could be instrumental in making sure that we keep some focus on this important topic even as we respond in the immediate term to the crisis using these methods.

Carl: Reporters can do their best, but it's hard to get people to widen their focus in a crisis that strikes everywhere close to home. For example, here is an article at the Times about how autocrats are using COVID-19 as justification to take away more liberties: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/world/europe/coronavirus-governments-power.html I hope people read it!

**

Q: Are you aware of any notable differences in the way media in different countries have covered the pandemic? And how do you manage to find good quality information amongst all the data that's out there? Also if you have any tips for someone who is very keen to gain some work experience in science journalism, that would be very much appreciated. Thank you!

Laura: You might check out the World Federation of Science Journalists. They just had a COVID-19 briefing and have a collection of resources for journalists from around the world here .

Helen: I don't have the time to analyze the coverage in other countries. The information flow at present is a tsunami. Tips: Read good science writers. Figure out what they're doing. Talk to the best people (sources) you can. Read the limitations sections of studies. Include important caveats in your pieces. Good luck.

**

Q: One very important question that many people have is why are we giving credence to any information coming out of China? They are a known authoritarian country that filters information coming into their country and restricts their citizens access to global news. They also filter information leaving their country. Can you please elaborate on how you can trust information coming from China?

Helen: China experienced the virus first. They have enormous experience and information that the rest of the world needs. Doctors from Johns Hopkins recently had a call with doctors from Wuhan to understand what to expect when the number of cases surged and how best to treat patients. Ignoring that expertise would be foolhardy. No country's numbers are a true picture of the number of infections. There's too little testing and asymptomatic & mild cases are being missed.

 

Newspapers: Headlines & paywalls

Q: Some news organizations removed paywalls for coronavirus articles during this time. How do you feel about this? As science journalists, I feel like you're a crucial bridge between laypeople and the scientific community. What are some things scientists can do or not do to be better communicators to the average person? What are some basic things that laypeople could or should do to improve their scientific literacy?

Helen: The organization I work for, STAT, decided from the beginning of the outbreak to put all our COVID-19 content in front of our paywall as a public service. None of our stories about the pandemic are behind our paywall. Some other organizations have done the same, some have changed their policies to put more in front of their paywalls. It's a tricky balance, though. The economics of journalism have been very challenged for years and paywalls are one of the pillars needed to support news organizations. And right now advertising is drying up. It's in no one's interest for outlets to disappear because they can no longer support their operations.

Carl: You can get free access to the New York Times coronavirus coverage through this page: https://www.nytimes.com/news-event/coronavirus

**

Q: A couple of things r/science has trouble with are sensationalized headlines and journalists not linking back to original sources in their articles. As journalists, how do you balance sensationalized headlines with an editor's desire for more clicks?

Carl: [I] work closely with my editor right up till a story gets posted (and then afterwards) to make sure the headline and associated social media tweets and such accurately reflect the story. It is always a big challenge, because if your headline is boring, people won't read your story. But if your headline is misleading, people can come away from the piece with the wrong impression, even if they read the story all the way through.

Laura: On headlines, I think the trend recently in most of the industry is away from clickbait (headlines that promise more than a story delivers) or curiosity gap headlines (that intentionally withhold information) and toward more simple headlines that are easy to find when someone does a search. One of the metrics we care about is "time on page," and if a story has a misleading headline and someone clicks to the story and immediately clicks away in irritation, that's a bad sign and something we can see in the traffic data. Editors do have the power to change headlines, especially if people are understanding it in a way we didn't intend. Most legit news organizations identify the reporter and have their email, and you can contact them or their editor or tweet at them and we usually take those complaints seriously.

**

Q: Sourcing the studies has to be my biggest gripe with reporting. It's rarely done in a sensible manner. What's the problem with injecting a link to the study abstract as the very first link, in nice bold printing, right under the headline?

Laura: I agree -- reporters should name the publication and/or at least one author of any study and link to the study. We usually do that a few paragraphs down in Washington Post articles, but different publications have different styles. Sometimes reporters don't do this immediately for a technical reason: We often get embargoed versions of the articles and write about them before they go live, and the link might not be available when the story publishes. Journals are doing a better job of providing the URL before their scientific report publishes, which makes it easier for journalists to add the link immediately. If you ever see a story (in a legit publication that cares about these things) without a link, tweet or comment at the reporter (or editor if you can figure out who that is) and they should add it.

Carl: I always shower my stories with links, and as far as I'm aware, other science writers at The Times all do the same. It is indeed very important.

**

Q: A lot of different articles about the same things vary widely in how they word/present information, forming a lot of conflicting narratives. How can we as readers make sure that an article is telling us the whole truth about what is being covered? The sheer amount of articles being published about the virus is staggering. Do you think that news outlets are lowering their standards in order to publish so many of these articles about COVID?

Carl: This is one of the biggest stories of our age. The Great Depression and World War II got lots of coverage as well, so this should be no different. I'd advise you to be a careful consumer, and look for the publications that are reliably delivering information that holds up to scrutiny. I hope that The Times, The Post, and STAT meet your standards.

 

COVID and courage

Q: Is there anything you can tell us to ease our anxiety? Since much of journalism is centered around the click and exploits that anxiety in order to draw people in, it would be nice to hear some optimistic news, specifically for the U.S.

Laura: This is such an important point. I think it's heartening that most people are doing their part — staying home, avoiding crowds, washing hands, all those things that are fundamentals of public health that might save your own life and can definitely save others' lives. There's a great book by Rebecca Solnit called Paradise Built in Hell about how people are incredibly selfless and innovative and decent when there's a disaster. The narratives about society breaking down under pressure are misleading — more often, disasters show that people are good.

**

Q: I just want to say thank you for the work you’ve done. It’s the small things individuals do that eventually lead to huge steps in society. So thank you, for doing things others may not have thought of doing.

Carl: I think I can speak on behalf of all three of us when I say, thanks!

**

Apr. 9, 2020

Drexel University Online