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Ace reporter shares tips for bolstering your coverage of COVID-19

Ace reporter shares tips for bolstering your coverage of COVID-19

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The ongoing coronavirus crisis presents journalists with an unprecedented opportunity to take complicated information and translate it for audiences desperate for news, said veteran science journalist Lisa M. Krieger.

“I can’t remember in my lifetime having this level of reader engagement,” Krieger said in a Center for Health Journalism webinar.

As the lead COVID-19 reporter for the San Jose Mercury and Bay Area News Group, Krieger has covered every angle of the coronavirus outbreak, from antibody testing to experimental new treatments, with plenty of user-friendly Q&As in between. In this week’s Center for Health Journalism “Covering Coronavirus” webinar, she shared useful sources, story ideas on key topics, and strategies for localizing the story of a lifetime.

Finding go-to sources

Amid the flood of coronavirus information, Krieger turns to reputable sources such as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), where you can review state and national forecasts for hospital capacity, deaths  and anticipated surges. She also regularly reads The New York Times coronavirus newsletter, STAT News, and the journal Science for its latest coronavirus news and research.

Other useful resources she tracks: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) situation reportsJohns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and First Draft News.

Given the matter’s urgency, she also keeps tabs on pre-prints of research papers, which have not gone through the standard peer-review process. Krieger does caution: “One preprint does not a scientific truth make.”

Staying informed

It’s important to keep yourself informed of the latest developments, which will not only educate your reporting decisions but give your writing more authority, Krieger said.

A useful resource for that up-to-date education: university medical centers’ grand rounds. These meetings, in which medical center staff educate their colleagues, are often shared online.  She pointed to medical centers such as Stanford, University of California San Francisco (UCSF), Massachusetts General, Johns Hopkins and The Forum at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

If you don’t have time to listen live, try recording on your phone and using a digital transcription service, allowing you to quickly scan them later for relevant information.

Generating useful ideas

Krieger broke her story ideas into several categories:

  • Genotyping: If you’ve got a medical center in your community with virologists, they’re likely genotyping the virus, or figuring out its genetic make-up and how that’s evolving.. This matters because it provides a history. Ask these scientists: What was the origin of your community’s outbreak? Where has the virus in your community been and how has it changed? Research out this week, for instance, found many of New York’s cases stemmed from European sources, while Bay Area infections came from all over the world.
  • Testing: Be mindful of the differences between the PCR test, which detects the presence of the live virus, and antibody tests, which indicate past exposure. The fragmentation of PCR testing is a hugely important story for readers since many are confused where they can or should go to be tested for the virus. Consider a service story:  Where is testing available in my community? How much does it cost? Call the local chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians and ask local physicians to walk you through what they tell patients. Also, what happens if someone is tested and found to have antibodies? Are they immune? Can they go back to work?
  • Case Count and Hospitalizations: Your local health department should have a portal where they will post case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. How does your community compare? Are shelter in place and other interventions working? Check with your local hospital about ICU admissions and capacity. Krieger noted that it’s important to look at daily cases and the rate of change over time. And it’s essential to set those numbers amid the context of the overall population of your area.  
  • Clinical Course: It’s useful to help readers explain what is going on clinically with COVID-19 patients, such as exploring the different courses the disease can take and what happens when people go into acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Most people in ICUs right now have ARDS, she noted. Find a patient and their family who is going through this. What is it like? What’s life in the ICU like?
  • Patient Stories: Find patients with different COVID-19 outcomes and use their stories to convey information. It’s also informative to report on who is dying. Your community should be collecting demographics of death, including age, ethnicity and risk factors. Show this information graphically if possible.

When contacting a patient, Krieger tries to start by having a candid conversation in which she asks the person to walk her through their experience, without the expectation that it will be published in the paper. That gives her a better sense of who they are and builds trust and rapport. Depending on how that goes, she may then ask whether they’re comfortable going on the record and goes over sections of their story and any quotes she’d like to include.

  • Treatments and Vaccines: If you have a medical center in your area, ask the hospital’s public information officer if they are conducting clinical trials. You can also check out the Nationals Institutes of Health (NIH) for a broader overview. If there is a local trial, ask what is being tested. How do the proposed treatments work? What’s the timeline? Who gets access to these trials? And, if most people are not eligible, are patients able to access the drugs through compassionate use? When new treatments emerge such as convalescent plasma, readers are going to have a lot of questions. How does it work? Where does the blood come from? Who’s eligible? Even though a vaccine is much farther out, keep your eye on the possible candidates that are emerging now.
  • Impact on Health Systems: Ask your local hospitals how they are dealing with surge or planning for the potential surge. What floors have they converted to COVID-19 units? Are primary doctors being trained to work as hospitalists? Ask about postponement of elective surgeries and the impact on hospital finances. What is happening with staffing levels and availability of personal protective equipment (PPE)? What is the cost of COVID care? What about for the uninsured and undocumented? 
  • Next Steps: Krieger wrapped up her suggested story ideas with a question likely on many readers’ minds: How do we get out of this mess? What might the next stage of this pandemic look like when we start to lift stay-at-home orders? What would an incremental return to normalcy look like in terms of schools and small and then large gatherings? And, will those at high risk still need to be careful until we get a vaccine? 

Finally, Krieger offered one last piece of advice, sharing the guiding question that she asks herself when faced with the firehose of news and story ideas: “What does the reader need to know?” 

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Watch the full presentation here:

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