AAAS Kavli Winners Reflect on COVID-19 and Public Health Reporting

Emily Hughes
Clockwise from top left: Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Jop de Vrieze, Nsikan Akpan, Amy Maxmen, Ed Yong, Maryn McKenna, Yunanto Utomo

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated news cycles globally. Science journalists suddenly became responsible for reporting challenging new subject matter — rapidly changing, highly politicized and often riddled with misinformation. A year and a half after the first reported outbreak in Wuhan, China, we caught up with past winners of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards about their experience reporting on the pandemic, and how they think this event will shape the future of public health reporting.

They described a sometimes chaotic experience, trying to keep up with a novel virus adept at evading the body’s immune defenses, while at the same time reporting on extreme stress on the body politic due to underfunded health departments, misinformation and misdirection from national leaders and social media platforms, and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations.

At a basic level, COVID-19 has emphasized the importance of strong reporting skills, particularly skills that recognize the nuances and complications at the heart of the pandemic, said Atlantic reporter Ed Yong. “I think the best journalism has attempted to do more than just write down what is happening, but to also synthesize large bodies of information to help readers make sense of what is happening,” he said.

Yong won a 2020 Science Reporting – In Depth Gold Award for a series describing shortcomings in America’s pandemic response. He encouraged journalists to do the reporting and show their work, adding “surely the best way to maintain trust is to prove yourself trustworthy.” Yong also won a 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the pandemic.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester of Kaiser Health News said she found herself reporting on a dynamic situation that exposed many pre-existing public health conflicts. Barry-Jester and her team from Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press won a 2020 Science Reporting – Large Outlet Gold Award for their investigation into underfunded local public health departments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hundreds line up in Virginia’s Fairfax County for COVID-19 testing on May 23, 2020 | AP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN

Barry-Jester, who has covered public health for a decade and has a degree in epidemiology, said COVID-19 presented highly unusual challenges “given its scope, the interconnectivity of the planet, and the role of the internet, among other dynamics,” including the state-federal approach to public health infrastructure in the United States. To report their story, Barry-Jester said she and her colleagues “focused on speaking with local health officials — the people most directly charged with preventing disease and combatting the pandemic.”

Jop de Vrieze, a 2016 Large Newspaper Gold Award-winner, said he kept a skeptical approach in his reporting, focusing on facts and the evolving scientific debate on transmission routes and policy options. De Vrieze has reported on the pandemic internationally, with work appearing in publications from the Netherlands, Belgium, France and the United States. He has worked to find a “balance between criticizing authorities and their claims on one hand and sifting through what critics have brought up at the same time.” He added, “To me, it was not so much about avoiding or battling misinformation but finding the truths and relevant insights in this cloud of information of very mixed quality and integrity.”

WNYC health and science editor Nsikan Akpan takes an equally critical approach, in both his work as an editor and as a persistent misinformation watchdog on social media. He focuses on digging into the source material rather than falling for clickbait headlines and single source stories. “I think it's always really important to try to go and find the original report,” he said, whether it is a document or “just going to listen to what was actually said in its context, especially if it's something that you care about or something that you have questions about.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed shortcomings of public health systems around the globe, encouraging rampant misinformation to take hold. Misinformation, however well-intentioned, and weaponized disinformation “have been an extraordinary problem,” said Maryn McKenna, who won a 2019 Magazine Gold Award for her story on the impact of right-wing nationalism on global public health. “It was a dizzying experience to watch the politicization of COVID in 2020,” McKenna said, “and realize that so much of what happened was broadly predicted in my story from 2019: the demonization of nations and groups, closing of borders, weaponization of public funding decisions, disregard for the vulnerable and marginalized.”

McKenna taught two online courses during the pandemic — with more than 13,000 journalists participating, most from developing economies — and they consistently said coping with misinformation and disinformation was their biggest challenge. McKenna hopes non-state efforts to interpret data, like volunteer-run COVID Tracking Project, will help reporters continue to share unbiased information with the public.

“I’ve been around epidemics and disaster reporting for most of my career, but what was different this time — aside from the sheer scale of the pandemic compared to H5N1 bird flu, H1N1 avian flu, and Ebola, among others — was the inability to trust sources that reporters would previously have relied on,” McKenna said. She cited the early politicization and muffling of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as “damaging not just to the reputation of that agency but to the trustworthiness of the data it was putting out.”

A health worker vaccinates a man against the ebola virus on June 16, 2019 in Butembo | John Wessels for Nature

Amy Maxmen, senior reporter at Nature and 2020 Magazine Gold Award-winner, reported from Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the world's largest Ebola outbreaks. Her reporting often focused on conflicts between local communities, public health officials and government organizations. Maxmen said she watched the same dynamics play out during the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes more intensely. “I often had less access here to government agencies, public health departments and hospitals than I did in Sierra Leone and in the DRC.” The CDC repeatedly refused to speak with her, Maxmen said, and held “rather few press briefings during the worst health crisis in a century.”

Barry-Jester saw issues of concern on a much more local level. “I’ll never forget the scenes at county supervisor meetings where there were no local reporters covering the event and concerned members of the community read unfiltered rumors from social media sites into the microphone,” she said, noting that it has become “abundantly clear” how crucial local journalism can be in combating the spread of misinformation.  

Looking forward, some journalists expect that the pandemic has changed science reporting for the better. As cases of the virus subside, Barry-Jester hopes journalists will have the space to revisit some of the big issues, “including how to prevent such devastating losses in the next pandemic, and a fuller accounting of which communities were most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and why.” Barry-Jester also is hopeful that the general public is “more primed than ever to pay attention to the nuances of public health.”

Utomo and his colleagues at used a comic book format to teach kids about the COVID-19 pandemic | Courtesy of Yunanto Utomo

Yunanto Utomo, journalist at the Indonesian outlet, is focusing his work on sharing important COVID-19 stories for kids. Utomo and his team won a 2020 Children’s Science News Award for an interactive comic book series explaining the virus to children. Utomo believes there will be a movement towards science journalism for younger audiences as more people realize that “children also need content about actual issues in the world.”  

Utomo also urged reporters to “put ourselves in our audience's shoes. What kind of information do they need? Which segments are still underserved? What challenges do they face during the pandemic? By understanding our audience, we may develop the best strategies to communicate the complexity of public health issues.” 

Maxmen said science journalists have done some incredible work during the pandemic, but she said the overall media landscape was detrimentally divisive during the peak of the crisis in the United States last year, and that could mean more polarization and irresponsible reporting on future pandemics. "I fear that if we have another outbreak — or COVID-22, as we appear to be allowing this to fester in other countries and evolve — U.S. media will only stoke more public mistrust and resentment,” Maxmen said.

Akpan had a hopeful outlook. He predicted that the pandemic will also encourage a new generation of public health workers and science journalists. “I think there’s a real energy to move into public health,” said Akpan, who transitioned into science journalism after completing a doctorate in pathobiology. He hopes the new public health movement will also bring new voices to science journalism as scientists shift into reporting roles, just as he did after finishing his degree. A new generation of writers, he said, will bring much needed fresh voices, and diverse voices, to future public health journalism.