Key quotes: So you're a health reporter, now what?

Apr 7, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
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As part of the Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our parent organization, the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) — we spoke with Thomas Abraham, a veteran journalist and foreign correspondent who is an adjunct associate professor with the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center. He has authored books about SARS and polio, and worked at the WHO headquarters in Geneva during the influenza pandemic. The discussion was moderated by Patrick Butler, ICFJ’s vice president of content and community.

This article is part of our online coverage of reporting on COVID-19. To see more resources, click here

Abraham discussed the reality today for reporters who have been thrown into covering the COVID-19 pandemic, and compared what is happening now with his experience covering the SARS virus in 2003. For Abraham, the key question journalists should be answering right now is what is the human story behind health and science reporting?

Here are highlights of the conversation: 

On covering COVID-19

“This is a story that has three basic elements. … Pillar number one, of course, is the virus. What do we need to know about this virus? … The second pillar is what happens when the virus gets into a human being? … The third pillar is how are people, societies, scientists and governments responding to this?”

“A lot of really, really good stories [are] coming out. Like the stuff that The New York Times does, as well as specialized news agencies like STAT News.”

On lessons from SARS 2003

“The roadmap for the way that the world is responding to this new virus was laid during SARS. ... Everything that we are seeing now, from travel restrictions to medical advice, all of that is really based on what happened during SARS, partly because this is a very similar virus, but more importantly, it set the template for how nations exchange information.”

“The other thing that I found really useful during SARS was seeing for the first time the impact [of] a microbe as it moves its way through society. … It's really useful, I think, to go back and look at some of the stuff that was written by journalists during SARS and people who've written books about it because the same thing is going to play out now.”

[Read more: Past health crises can inform reporting on COVID-19]

On resources for journalists

“I find the WHO website is very good. It's got a lot of background material. The daily press conferences that the WHO director general and his team do are open to people all over the world. So even if you're in your own country reporting what's happening there, it's useful to have this global picture, and you can also ask questions.”

“The other useful thing is to link up with other people working on this. You know, people who have had more experience. Twitter's a great resource.”

On stories that go beyond the numbers

“I think it's really, really important to step back and ask yourself frequently: ‘What is this all about? What is the big picture?’”

“I think ultimately behind each figure, behind each case count is basically the human beings. That doesn't mean that we report on each person who's fallen ill. That's not necessary. But what is the impact, what does this all mean? For example, what does this mean for doctors and nurses? For hospital staff? For people who are affected? … So we need, in a sense, to attach meaning to figures.” 

“I think we can find ways to work around [not being in the field all of the time]. … At the best of times, doctors don't want journalists tramping through hospital corridors and clogging up outpatient departments because it impedes their work as well. … I think all we can do in circumstances like this is to stay safe and use the array of wonderful technologies that are available that were not available in 2003 with the first SARS.”

“My advice would be to the extent possible, go beyond the figures and try to see what's actually happening on the ground. … I think the figures are just the tip of the iceberg.” 

[Read more: Everyone's a health reporter now: Covering COVID-19 on other beats]

On those in power profiting from the pandemic

“I think this is going to be a big story because of the amounts of money that are being spent on equipment, personnel and so on and so forth. ... I think it's important to find out who is actually supplying equipment, who the vendors are. … And I would strongly recommend building up networks of other journalists.” 

On the media freedom crackdown

“I’m very concerned. … One huge lesson that we learned from the original SARS is that suppressing information actually leads to the loss of lives.”

On what’s next

“I hope everybody realizes after this that a microbe can devastate the world. Health is fundamental to everything else that we do. … So I think there's going to be a lot more emphasis on keeping the world healthy, not just from infectious diseases, but from things like cancer.”

“Hopefully newsrooms will see that this is something they should be investing in. … I hope journalists and journalism organizations start lobbying for trained health journalists, so the next time this comes around, people don't have to start from the beginning again.”

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Maxwell Ridgeway.