covering COVID-19

We talked with science journalist Valeria Román as part of the Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our parent organization, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). Román is a member of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Business, politics, travel, lifestyle: no matter the beat, most journalists are now reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. This has required journalists to step into an area that until recently seemed reserved only for science and health reporters. To carry out this coverage effectively, reporters are familiarizing themselves with new concepts, sources and data.

In this article, we’ve compiled tips from Argentinian science journalist Valeria Román to help journalists report effectively during this crisis. She shared her advice with us during a Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum webinar last week.

(1) Understand key concepts

Reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) contain new and potentially confusing terms. For example, two important terms the WHO included in their Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, shared in February to help countries prepare for COVID-19, refer to the phases of response to the virus.

During the containment phase, the following cases of COVID-19 are present:

  • Imported: people with the virus who became infected after traveling to another country, and especially high-risk areas. The high-risk areas have moved from China first, to countries in Europe like Italy and Spain, and now to the United States. 
  • Close contacts: people who became infected from imported cases but did not travel to another country.

The mitigation phase occurs when there is already community transmission — another key term. WHO identifies community transmission when officials are unable to relate confirmed cases of the virus.

(2) Don’t obsess over success

Comparing data with countries like South Korea that have slowed the pandemic can help journalists identify and relay what worked and what didn’t. We shouldn’t obsess over success stories, however, said Román. Remember, this is a new virus, so we should keep in mind the following:

  • There are many approaches to intervention that are being tested just now.
  • Countries in Asia like China or South Korea already have significant experience in handling similar viruses, such as the one that caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-03.

(3) Consult reputable sources

As the coronavirus spreads, another pandemic is growing: misinformation around the disease. To combat this infodemic, it’s important to understand which sources are reliable to use in your reporting.

Journalists everywhere should follow updates from their countries’ health authorities, Román recommended. Reporters should also seek information from WHO, and reporters in Latin America can visit the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Latin American journalists should contact their local PAHO office if local data is unreliable.

Expert information can also be found in scientific journals like The Lancet, Science, Nature, and JAMA. It’s important to note, however, that these studies in some cases aren’t following their typical review processes, due to the speed with which they’re trying to publish during the crisis, Román cautioned.

Additional sources include infectious or epidemiological medical associations, medical institutions and schools in each country. “Even if they do not have the data themselves, these sources can help find data that authorities do not provide,” Román added.

Many experts and specialists today are working around the clock to respond to the ongoing crisis. As a result, the best source for a topic may not be available to give interviews. In these situations, don’t settle for talking heads simply offering their opinions. “Today, it is key not to be carried away by opinion or typical common sense,” Román said. 

(4) Exercise a healthy skepticism regarding treatments

There are two types of treatments being tested now for the novel coronavirus, according to Román. The first is the search for new therapies that haven’t been used before. The second is research around drugs that are currently used to treat other diseases. Most treatments discussed to date do not have strong evidence to support their effectiveness. 

When reporting on potential treatments, Román recommended that journalists ask, “What evidence exists to support them?” This will help determine what research was conducted, how many people the treatments were tested on, and how effective they were. 

“When you start asking all these questions, you start to realize the weaknesses of the treatments,” she said.

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by Aldana Vales, International Journalists’ Network

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