Science journalists on the pandemic: ‘We couldn’t trust our regular sources’

From flame wars on twitter to sleepless nights, four of the country’s leading science journalists spoke of the challenges they’ve faced covering the COVID-19 pandemic during an April 28 event hosted by the College of Arts & Sciences.

“I’ve tried to have as professional a relationship with the virus as I can at this point,” said Apoorva Mandavilli, a New York Times reporter focused on science and global health. “But I have two children, one in elementary school and one in middle school. My parents live in India, so I’m terrified of getting up in the morning, knowing there will be bad news. It’s hard to be living the pandemic while you’re reporting on it.”

Along with the impacts the pandemic had on their personal lives, journalists talked about battling misinformation, being vilified on social media and struggling to keep tabs on ever-changing global situations from their home offices.

All of them said they are thankful to be receiving the vaccine and anxious to get back into the field to continue traditional on-the-ground reporting.

The panel, “Covering COVID: How journalists tackled the biggest science story of our time,” was part of the College’s Distinguished Visiting Journalist Program, which recognizes excellence in journalism and provides opportunities for select journalists and the Cornell University community to engage with each other. In addition to events like this one, the program also hosts journalists on campus for extended visits.

“The pandemic has highlighted the critical role of journalists in our society,” said Ray Jayawardhana, Harold Tanner Dean of Arts & Sciences, who opened the program. “We’ve depended on their reporting on matters of life and death on an extraordinary scale, at a time when the world has been gripped by uncertainty, fear and loss.”

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The panel was moderated by Faye Flam, Bloomberg opinion columnist and host of the podcast “Follow the Science.” Along with Mandavilli, other panelists included Jason Beaubien, global health and development correspondent for NPR and Jon Cohen, staff writer with Science.

Covering a global pandemic would be challenging enough, all four said, but their work was complicated by the pervasive spread of misinformation and the politicization of information that was available.

“I don’t think I’ve ever covered anything that was as politically polarized as this,” Flam said. “Experts outside of the government were free to say what they wanted, but inside, it was different.”

Mandavilli said usually reliable sources, such as the CDC, became unreliable. “We couldn’t even believe the WHO (World Health Organization), because they were under so much pressure from the U.S. and China. They didn’t tell us things they should have been telling us.” She began to rely on anonymous sources from within the CDC, who leaked accurate information to her.

Cohen said he had to “bite my tongue so many times” listening to White House briefings, where inaccurate scientific information was often shared.

Beaubien was in Australia covering wildfires in January 2020 when he heard of a strange “viral pneumonia” in China, so he flew to Hong Kong hoping to get a visa into China to report. Although he never got into China, he stayed in Hong Kong until late February, covering the pandemic’s start, until NPR decided to pull him back to the U.S.

“I told people that we were screwed – if China isn’t able to contain it, we’re going to have a bad pandemic here. I got cast as the Cassandra of the newsroom,” he said. “I’d been in Hong Kong and seen the terror. When you looked at what the U.S. was doing to prepare, it was nothing.”

The virus’ novelty made it hard for journalists to provide any clear picture of the future, something readers were craving, Cohen said.

“People want to know when it’s going to be over and we can’t give that,” he said.

The uncertainty and evolution of issues in the scientific world are second nature to science journalists, but not to the general public, Flam said.

“People overestimated the role of human control in this and underestimated the chaotic, random factors that cause the disease to die down in one place and then rise up in another,” she said.

As the pandemic continued, all four journalists said it took over their lives.

“There were many nights when I got up at 3 a.m. and just went to work because there was so much to do,” Cohen said. “I’m really proud of our work, but it’s nice to get to the end.”

Mandavilli said she sometimes wrote as many as 9 or 10 stories in one week “and it still didn’t seem like enough.”

Working as hard as they could and with little sleep, they still were attacked frequently for their work.

Flam said readers accused her of killing children when she wrote a piece interviewing an expert about the importance of in-person instruction, while Mandavilli’s early reporting on school closings brought a stream of hatred on twitter.

As they look to the future, the journalists said they’re hopeful as they watch numbers drop in the U.S. They’re now turning their attention to coverage of the global vaccination campaign, concern about variants and lessons learned for the future.

“I wonder what the long-term impacts are going to be in countries like Africa or Haiti,” Beaubien said. “If some people there with milder infections are going to actually have long-term COVID effects.”

Mandavilli said the data she prefers to see these days is showing the solid impacts of vaccinations.

 “When vaccines are used widely, they work and you see death rates, ICU numbers and hospitalizations plummeting,” she said. “Those reports are filled with hope.”

Watch the recording of the event.

Read the Cornell Chronicle story.

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