To mark the anniversary of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring COVID-19 as a pandemic, I spoke with four journalists.
In our conversation, we addressed the challenges of keeping pace with the fast emerging science of SARS-CoV-2. We also discussed how the past year has blurred the boundaries between our professional and personal lives and reflected on what the pandemic may mean for health journalism in the long run.
We kicked off our discussion with a hot potato topic — the preprint. Before the pandemic, many health news stories were based on research published in peer reviewed scientific journals.
To write these stories, journalists might typically use a combination of the published paper, an accompanying press release, quotes from the researchers, and commentary provided by external experts.
Or that was certainly the case at MNT. Throw in a novel coronavirus, and journalists were faced with a host of papers that had not undergone peer review yet.
Peer review sees scientific journals working with external academic experts, who are not involved in the research, to review the science. This can be a lengthy process, with some papers taking months or even years to go from the final experimental work to be ready for publication, undergoing several iterations.
This robust method is ingrained in the academic scientific process. In recent years, researchers have increasingly taken to posting their manuscripts on preprint servers, repositories for results that have yet to undergo peer review.
While health journalists have traditionally steered clear of reporting on these preprint papers, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a seismic shift. With thousands of papers now covering every aspect of SARS-CoV-2, the peer review process has, to some extent, fallen by the wayside.
To stay on top of the most up-to-date developments, journalists had to get to grips with preprint manuscripts. But this approach is not without its issues.
As Tim Newman explained:
“The news was moving faster than the peer review process. […] When you’re covering a preprint or press release, you have to make sure you’ve got the context right. Because when it’s gone through peer review, you have to trust that there’s been some level of scrutiny that people have looked at it and that it’s worth being in a major journal. But now you’re covering preprints, you have to really look carefully at it and make sure you’re not covering something that perhaps is nonsense. So it meant every new story we covered that there was just a little bit more work in the background that we had to do before we could fully trust the story.”
While preprints allow journalists to at least have a look through the data, even if it has not been scrutinized by external academic experts yet, press releases put out by pharmaceutical companies are a different story altogether.
As the first interim results from COVID-19 vaccine trials started to emerge in 2020, these press releases put us in somewhat of a difficult situation.
“The whole issue with science based [on] a press release was something I hadn’t really experienced before either,” Julia Reis told us.
“Usually, you get these robust stories that are just pages long, packed with information. But then, when we would learn a little bit about a new vaccine coming out that was in clinical trials, we wouldn’t get this robust set of data. We would get a press release. Any time those press releases were released to the media, you would see headline after headline immediately pop up. But, that’s really tricky, because we didn’t have all the science. So, I feel like there was a really delicate balance between sharing that information but also letting people know that we don’t have the study, this has not been peer reviewed […] we really can’t be sure or confident until we have a lot more information.” – Julia
Journalists certainly had their work cut out trying to stay on top of all of the developments.
Roz Plater worked as a nurse before becoming a journalist, which gave her a head start on the science and medical terminology that we all have become so familiar with in the past year.
“I had to immerse myself every day, everything I could read, listened to all the experts that I could listen to because the information was changing so rapidly. And then I developed a core of experts that I could turn to, to ask questions about a new study or a new press release that we got about something,” she told us.
With the world’s eyes firmly on COVID-19, health news has clearly taken center stage in the news sphere.
Sarah Mitroff told us how the pandemic has influenced her work at CNET, a technology and consumer electronics website.
“One of the biggest challenges that we had, as a more mainstream news organization, was dealing with a lot of sensationalist headlines and pressure to jump on those similar headlines. […] A big part of my coronavirus strategy last year was to be really vigilant about what we covered, and not buy into the hype and the fear that was going on out there.” – Sarah
On more than one occasion, Sarah ended up taking an opposing angle to other news outlets in her own stories, looking to debunk some of the misconceptions that were rife.
This struck a chord with all of us. “It helps to have a good editor,” Roz commented. “There really is no need to make things worse than they are.”
Another topic we tackled was how we found our personal work-life balance in our new normal. Journalists are, after all, also people and faced with the same pandemic worries as the rest of the world.
One big difference was that COVID-19 quickly took over our professional lives, leaving us focusing on the ins and outs of the pandemic for much of our days.
Before the pandemic, Julia had clear boundaries between her work and her personal life. These quickly blurred when she found herself writing COVID-19 stories during the day, then discussing the latest developments of the pandemic with friends and family in the evenings, before finding herself caught up in social media posts.
“I […] realized that I needed to figure something out because what I was doing was not going to be sustainable,” she told us. This meant recalibrating her schedule to keep COVID-19 strictly to working hours.
Julia’s experience resonated with Sarah. Being faced with COVID-19 during her work and personal time, plus switching from being in an office to working at home, were challenging.
“I [would] go on social media after work as a decompression, and [be] faced with more and more information about the tragedies and the misinformation, and seeing friends not taking this seriously. It was so hard to find that work-life balance, and it took me a really long time to get to that point,” Sarah told us.
For Tim, life with two small kids at home while managing a team all working remotely was a challenge.
“I certainly found it difficult to switch off — when the only thing that you’re presented with after work is stuff that you might have to cover the next day at work, it makes it really difficult to put your mind into neutral,” he said. “And I think you need to have a bit of neutral time, otherwise you can’t continue to function.”
From our conversation, it became clear that we were essentially in two camps. Sarah, Julia, and Tim’s approach was to draw clear boundaries between work and non-work time, limiting COVID-19 to allocated hours.
Roz and I took the opposite route, fully immersing ourselves in COVID-19 nigh on 24/7.
Roz has a clear schedule that allows her to tap into the latest information during the day and well into the evening. My break comes after my working day when I spend time with my two young kids. When they go to bed, it’s back to catching up on podcasts, papers, and the day’s news.
At the end of our conversation, we took turns reflecting on what was to come next.
Sarah told us that the pandemic opened her eyes to how public health crises are handled both at home and further afield. In light of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, she hoped to be able to return to doing the things that she enjoys doing.
For Julia, it was important to acknowledge that the pandemic has been hard for everyone. But there was plenty of hope on the horizon, she said, in the form of vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs of the past year. “I think together, we will come out of it,” she concluded.
To Roz, there were clear changes on the horizon in how we think about our health.
“My little niece, after 9/11, was asked to write a paper in school […] about how it had changed their lives. And she wrote one sentence: ‘I’m not the same me, the end.’ And I think that’s it, we’re never going to be the same people anymore. I think we’ll be obsessed about health. […] I hope the changes are good ones and that they’ll stick.” – Roz
Tim echoed this sentiment.
“Overall, I’m hoping that as we come out of it, as people get vaccinated, there’ll be a bit of a resurgence in an interest in science because it’s not been politics that’s got us out of this, it’s been science,” he said. “And I hope that a lot of people turn to reputable scientific sources and start taking an interest in that side of things.”
As for me, I am hopeful that, as journalists, we will be able to advocate for health for all in a different way. The pandemic has shone the spotlight on inequities within the societies that we live in and on a global scale.
To balance the scales will require effort at all levels. As journalists, I am hoping that we can play a part in this.
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