Covering COVID-19: A health check for science journalism

What pulls Gary Schwitzer from sleep at 3 a.m. these days is a mixture of personal and professional worries.

Personally, Schwitzer is aggrieved by his battle with board members of his homeowners association, who he said have resisted his recommendation for residents in his Twin Cities condo complex to wear masks.

Professionally, it’s journalism, specifically the state of science and health journalism during a global pandemic that follows a decade during which newsrooms have lost dedicated science and health reporters

“Regardless of whether you’re a White House reporter thrown into this terrible setting or whether you are a health medical science journalist, you’re facing obstacles, uncertainty, unlike anything we’ve probably seen in decades,” said Schwitzer, an adjunct associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. “And it comes at a time when newsrooms are facing tremendous economic challenges even before the coronavirus spread.”

Science and health journalism has been Schwitzer’s preoccupation for the past 47 years, primarily in his capacity as publisher of The 15-year-old publication ceased daily operations in 2018 when it lost its major source of funding, but Schwitzer has kept it going with the help of Chicago-based freelancer Mary Chris Jaklevic. The two have published a steady stream of COVID-19-related stories since mid-March, warning readers of single-source stories and critiquing outlets that report on the early stages of studies, drug and vaccine trials with little context or evaluation of evidence.

While Schwitzer can name media organizations that he said are excelling in their coverage of the pandemic—The Washington Post, Kaiser Health News and PBS NewsHour, among them— it’s the “daily drumbeat of dreck” that keeps him writing into the fray. 

“No matter where you live in this country, you’re likely to get crap on any given day more often than you are to get the really good stuff,” Schwitzer said.

Even with grassroots efforts among local journalism innovators to improve community health coverage, for many long-time science and health journalists, the elimination of dedicated science and health journalists at many media outlets in the last decade is a major loss. Miles O’Brien, a veteran science correspondent for PBS NewsHour and Frontline, called that loss a “a terrible detriment to our society right now at a time of crisis.”

“There’s a dearth of people out there who have science expertise background, that is their beat, that are attached to platforms that reach a really wide audience,” O’Brien said. “There’s a lot of science coverage out there, but it’s very niche. You have to seek it out. And it gets drowned out by this other politically oriented coverage, which can be so inaccurate, so unfortunate, and it just exacerbates all the divisions we have in this country and the misunderstandings.”

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

O’Brien directed “Coronavirus Pandemic,” a Frontline documentary that premiered April 21, which explores the politics complicating the country’s response to the pandemic. O’Brien sees politics as a problem with current journalism coverage as well.

“It’s so unfortunate that we are having the coverage of this crisis being conducted by political reporters in the White House press room,” O’Brien said. “And I don’t say that because they’re bad journalists. I just say that because they look through everything through the prism of politics, and so their stories are written as such.”

This story is the cover of the summer 2020 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review. The full issue is available by subscription or on our website in mid-July.

Robin Lloyd, contributing editor and former news editor at Scientific American, said there’s nothing wrong with science journalism told through a political lens or that includes political content. The problem is the lack of science journalism that doesn’t do that.

“I think we better serve our readers if we can give them knowledge that isn’t structured by conventional political narratives and stories that get repeated and repeated to the point where they become reified,” said Lloyd, who has a background in sociology and teaches in the graduate science, health & environmental reporting program at New York University. “We support and maintain them every time that we import that context into reporting.”

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a long-time contributing editor for The Atlantic and professor of journalism at Boston University, said another problem lies in the nature of the news industry itself—the desire to be on top of the story, ahead of the competition. Science just doesn’t work that way, she said.

“Various media outlets feel tremendous pressure to get those stories out so they get those eyeballs as soon as they can,” Shell said. “There’s been a tremendous amount of stuff that wasn’t ready for primetime that is out there. It’s science in a fishbowl where everybody can see it, and that’s not how science operates. Science relies on the slow accretion of evidence over time.”

Kristen French, a freelance science writer and journalist based in San Diego, said the COVID-19 story has been hard to slow down. French recently published a story about the deaths of young people from COVID-19 in proto, a national science magazine produced by Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Everything is moving so fast,” French said. “It’s like partially digested material. You have to be really clear that what you’re saying is not definitive. It’s based on what we know at this time. That’s definitely a huge challenge.”

Shell said journalists would do well to push back against editors rushing to get a story out.

“What I hope science journalists on a staff would do is to educate the editors as to the nuances of the story,” Shell said. “I understand they can’t push back entirely. They’ve got deadlines. They’ve got to get stuff out. But for the long-term health of the public and the long-term career of the journalists, it would be wise for them to advocate for things to be slowed down.”

Charlotte Sutton, assistant managing editor and health and science editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said she is grateful for the reporters on her staff who have done just that. Sutton pointed to stories about remdesivir, an antiviral drug produced by Gilead that is being closely watched for its potential efficacy in combating COVID-19. Even highly regarded health news outlets like STAT, produced by Boston Globe Media, have been criticized for publishing stories early on that didn’t fully vet or contextualize data from initial studies of the drug. 

“It’s human nature to want to be the first on a big story, but additionally, it’s human nature to want to give people some glimmer of good news amid the horror of this pandemic,” Sutton said. 

But Sutton said some of her own reporters resisted the urge to jump on the remdesivir bandwagon after STAT posted an “exclusive” in mid-April based largely on a leaked video discussion among faculty members from the University of Chicago Medicine, where a clinical trial of the drug was being conducted. A week later, STAT retracted another story about remdesivir that was based on a draft manuscript regarding a clinical trial in China, which STAT said it had pulled from an inadvertent post on the website of the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“I was proud of my reporters who tapped the brakes,” Sutton said.

Karl Stark, the Inquirer’s business news editor and past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists organization, said the Inquirer is an exception to many outlets that have shrunk or eliminated their health and science desks, in part because the Philadelphia area is rich with hospitals and medical schools. 

“At the Inquirer, we’re really lucky because we have a whole group of people who do this work,” Stark said. “Philly is very much into meds and eds.”

Sutton said she has nine reporters covering the coronavirus story, including five regular health reporters and four reporters pulled from the paper’s investigations team. One other reporter is covering the environment.  

We are definitely an anomaly in that we have maintained a strong health and science desk even before coronavirus, completely independently.”

“We are definitely an anomaly in that we have maintained a strong health and science desk even before coronavirus, completely independently,” said Sutton, crediting both readers’ demand for this coverage and the Inquirer’s nonprofit ownership structure. “That’s been incredibly fortunate for us because we are now able to do the kinds of health and science stories that others may find challenging.”

Sutton said the expertise of seasoned health reporters helps them deliver smarter coverage. 

“If you don’t understand, for instance, that studies with very few people in them are not very reliable, or if you don’t understand that studies done on animals usually do not translate into humans, it’s really hard for people who don’t have that knowledge to know what’s going on,” Sutton said. “So they wind up being a bit more at the mercy of a government policy person or a drug maker or somebody who has more of a vested interest in one side or the other.”

Many seasoned science writers stumbled into the field with humanities degrees. O’Brien was a history major in college. Others have extensive training in science. Carolyn Wilke, a staff writer for Science News for Students, based in Chicago, has three science degrees, including a doctorate in environmental engineering from Northwestern University. The staff at Science News for Students all have a background in science, Wilke said, and that makes a big difference. 

“We have a lot of people who can understand the research and are really well equipped to report on it,” Wilke said. “It gives you an ability to go deep.”

Erika Check Hayden, who directs the graduate science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where students admitted into the program must have both a degree and research experience in science or engineering, said she doesn’t think a science background is essential to being able to cover the coronavirus beat well. But it helps. 

“Any strong reporter coming to a new beat will know how to find sources and will eventually get up to speed on what are the really salient questions,” Hayden said. “If you already have some background in the field, you know right off the bat what are the critical questions and you can bring a really insightful analysis because of that.” 

Sharon Begley, a senior science writer at STAT who has been with the publication since its founding in late 2015, said her contribution to the coronavirus story lies less in her knowledge of the “nuts and bolts of either virology or epidemiology” and more in her critical mindset as a reporter. 

 “I think it’s helped me be able to separate the plausible from the ‘this is just ridiculous and it’s never going to be right,’” Begley said. “It’s not that I know a spike protein better than anybody else. It’s more whatever insights into how science works that I think has been helpful.”

In an April 8 webinar, “Covering the Crisis: A Top Reporter’s Daily Routine,” Lisa M. Krieger, a science writer for the San Jose Mercury News, said it is important for journalists on the coronavirus beat to learn the science behind the story, and to tap into all of the resources available to them.

“When news releases come out, a press release comes out, someone calls you, there’s not this firehouse of information that you mentally can’t organize or you may not know how to organize or you don’t know what this development means,” Krieger said. “If you’ve got a really basic understanding about each of these things, then when this comes in, you’ll know exactly what the context is and whether it matters or not.”

For many seasoned science writers like Krieger, preprints, the draft of a research paper that is shared publicly before it has been peer reviewed, have been a sticking point in COVID-19 reporting. Many outlets have published stories based on the results of preprints without identifying them as such for their readers—or explaining the role of preprints in the scientific process. 

“It’s important that that’s happening for other scientists so scientists can share information and improve their own research that way more quickly,” French pointed out, “but some of the papers published without any peer review process are pretty sketchy. To have those get out into the media can be worrisome.”

Begley said before the coronavirus pandemic, she might have written a story based on a preprint two or three times a year. 

Every publication has thrown just armies of reporters at this.”

“Every publication has thrown just armies of reporters at this, so inevitably, many of those are coming to this without a ton of background in preprints or anything else,” Begley said. “The challenge is that there is always competitive pressure, so you want to be first. You also want to be right, and you don’t want to feed the flames of hysteria or anything else. It’s definitely a balancing act.”

In mid-March, inspired by questions her family members and friends were asking about the outbreak, Lloyd began producing the newsletter ‘smart, useful, science stuff about COVID-19.’ Lloyd’s said her experience at Scientific American has helped her understand the importance of answering questions for readers by way of a deep dive into the best experts and research on and coverage of a subject. 

Lloyd’s newsletter provides summaries, context and links to publications. Freelance journalist Patrice Peck also publishes a newsletter, Coronavirus News for Black Folks, which features her own reporting as well as stories by other journalists. She called it “FUBU” or “for us by us” content. 

Peck said her newsletter intends to fill a gap in coverage about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community. 

“Not only will this lack of coverage likely worsen the pandemic overall due to a lack of greater awareness and information about the disease and pandemic within (and without) our community, but it’s also devastate [sic] our community to a much greater degree,”  Peck wrote on the newsletter’s website. 

Many experts feel that outlets should focus more on the type of “explainers” that can be found in Lloyd’s and Peck’s newsletters, providing background to readers but also showing them how to critically assess information. 

Krieger told webinar attendees that simple Q and A’s that offer explanations or debunk misinformation can be helpful for readers, and for reporters who don’t have time to do more in-depth stories.

“People love them,” Krieger said. “It really helps. We’ve also created a way for readers to send their own questions to me, and that creates this reader engagement that is just lovely.”

Despite the challenges, Lloyd said journalists can make the most of this moment.

 “We’ve got a fantastic audience right now for people who want to know, who want to understand science, who want to understand why it takes a year and a half minimum to generate a vaccine, who want to understand why there are so many tests out there, how they can get one, why we are prioritizing giving them to the people we’re giving them to now,” Lloyd said. “All of these kinds of questions are science questions, and finally, we’re in the forefront of explaining and investigating these things. It’s a fantastic time really for science journalism and health journalism.”

Jenny Spinner is a professor of English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia where she teaches journalism and writing and serves as a contributing faculty adviser to The Hawk student newspaper. Her latest book is Of Women and the Essay (U of Georgia P, 2018).  

Share our journalism