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Keep these essential tips in mind to better cover the coronavirus crisis right now

Keep these essential tips in mind to better cover the coronavirus crisis right now

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
(Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images)

As the fast-moving coronavirus story unfolds, reporters throughout the country are jumping into the health beat, helping their communities navigate the uncharted territory of a pandemic. 

“What a privilege it is to be a journalist in this environment,” longtime science reporter Lisa M. Krieger told fellow reporters this week. “I really can’t remember another time in my professional life, except for the early days of HIV, when people were so desperate for accurate information.”

Krieger, the lead COVID-19 reporter for the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, joined journalist, professor and physician Dr. Seema Yasmin and risk communications expert Glen Nowak to give journalists attending the 2020 California Fellowship this week advice on how to best cover the story of a lifetime. The Fellowship, usually held in person, was moved online because of the crisis.

A day in the life

Every morning, Krieger combs her carefully curated Twitter feed of health and policy contacts, including Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has posted quick notice of spontaneous breaking-news press briefings since the crisis began.

She also heads to useful sites such as The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, The New York Times “Coronavirus Briefing newsletter, online science news site  and Sciencemag.org. She also checks WHO for the latest case counts and First Draft News, which offers coronavirus resources for reporters.

Since Krieger isn’t receiving as many call backs or email responses from overwhelmed sources, she signs up for their email updates and follows them on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Among the essential government agencies she follows: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sends email updates, and the U.S. Department of Health & Human ServicesTwitter feed.

Localizing story ideas

Krieger offered a series of story ideas that can be localized to one’s coverage area. For example, check with the local hospital and ask about their capacities. Do they have enough beds? Ventilators? Staff? Personal protective equipment (PPE)? Why or why not? Nurses and health care workers unions can provide useful sources for these stories.

Local reporters can also check in with skilled nursing facilities and ask about supplies, screenings and measures to keep patients safe.

For these stories in California, Krieger suggested contacting California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Institute on Aging, California Health Advocates and the Coalition of Agencies Serving the Elderly.

If you’re able to interview local physicians, ask whether they have adequate testing capacity. 

How do they screen patients? How are they providing clinical care? Sources for these articles include your local county medical society, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the California Medical Association and the California Academy of Family Physicians.

If you do get a physician on the phone, ask every question you have, not just the ones for that particular story you’re working on, she said. Krieger will often use a single interview to fill in a number of different stories, maximizing its mileage during a time when it’s hard to get doctors on the phone.

For stories looking at drugs or vaccines, she suggested contacting PhRMA, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease, universities and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Consider doing quick-hit Q&As, delving into topics on people’s minds such as fatality rate, transmissibility, vaccines, treatment, and how long the virus lives on surfaces. Aside from addressing readers’ burning questions, those have been huge drivers of traffic, Krieger has found.

In an environment where sources are scarce, “webinars are fabulous,” she said. If you don’t have time to listen to a given webinar, play it on your computer, record it on your phone and then use  to transcribe it. Skim and read only the parts relevant to you. 

Another tip: As soon as you enter a press briefing, get in the queue to ask a question since question time is typically limited: “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a question; you’ll have one by the time the teleconference is over,” she said. 

In every story you write, have some prepared “B matter” that you can plug in:  The current number of cases and deaths in your locality, and useful facts about the virus overall such as who is most at risk and how you can protect yourself. 

Finally, Krieger considered how to protect one’s own health and the health of those you’re reporting on while covering this story.  She would not recommend walking into a senior living or assisted living community.

“Our responsibility is not to make the problem worse,” she said. “If you can get what you need by phone, do it.”

Reporting in uncertain times

Journalist and physician Seema Yasmin, who has investigated disease outbreaks for the CDC, highlighted the challenges of reporting a constantly evolving story. 

For example, while most of the reporting on the coronavirus thus far has said children are only mildly impacted by the virus, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics this week offered some new analysis: a small percentage of kids have more severe complications.

“It brings home the point that this is a dynamic situation and we need to be nimble,” Yasmin said. “Be comfortable with the uncertainty.”

In an ideal world, infectious disease would be your beat, and you’d already have reliable sources. Since that likely isn’t the case, Yasmin offered some advice on vetting sources on the fly. For one, keep in mind that the loudest voices aren’t always the most expert ones. When searching for new sources, ask trusted contacts to make recommendations.

She urged reporters to be mindful of word choice, such as avoiding “the language of war” when covering pandemics and to “be careful what you call the coronavirus.” 

What lies ahead

Nowak, a professor and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia, discussed the path ahead. 

Expect more conversations on the intersection of social values and the sustainability of government measures for social distancing, he said. The longer these restrictive measures go on, the more people are going to start switching the conversation beyond public health and asking: “What about the harms being caused by the long-term use of these measures?” 

When that time comes, prepare to report on transition plans. Will strict and broad measures be taken off the table?

And, if the peak does decrease, is that the main peak or simply the downside of the first peak, with the virus likely returning with another spike? The potential exists of another outbreak in places that thought they were on the downside of the first wave, he pointed out.

Over the next several weeks, watch the case count and the curve to see what those tell us about the efficacy of social distancing measures, Krieger added.

“Right now, the curve isn’t looking good,” she said. “It’s pretty terrifying.”

Comments

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Hello, I am writing to be the voice for my co-worker and others like him.. Please help! Those at risk for this virus need to be released so they can control their own health and safety! My co worker has asthma!! Just a matter of time before it gets into that jail!! He has also been denied his inhaler two times that I know of.
Thank You for your time and good luck to you and your families and stay healthy

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I am reaching out to find the person who would be in charge of buying N95 mask and more PPE that you need to be protected on your jobs . Reach out to me. Thanks in advance.

Doc Whitmore
I am your guy.

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