Tips on finding and vetting experts during a disease outbreak

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By Tara Haelle, Association of Health Care Journalists

When covering a hot, fast-moving health issue like a disease outbreak, a severe weather event or other public health emergency, it can be a scramble to find the expert sources you need quickly. Still, it’s essential to ensure they are the right experts you need for the story you’re writing. During an infectious disease outbreak, for example, relying on someone who appears authoritative and has experience in epidemiology or disease in general, but isn’t actually an expert in infectious disease, is dangerous. You risk communicating inaccurate or misleading information to an anxious public. 

I asked two people who specialize in reporting on infectious disease how they find and vet sources during an outbreak: freelance journalist and AHCJ board member Maryn McKenna and Kent State University epidemiologist Tara C. Smith. I had two main questions for them:

  1. How do you find and then vet experts to use them as sources in covering fast-moving hot public health topics in the news? 
  2. Why is it important to be sure the person you use as a source has the knowledge, experience, training, etc. in the specific topic area you’re writing about, as opposed to a generalist? 

Here are their suggestions, followed by a list summarizing key points.

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