COVID-19 Reporting – When the Professional Became Personal
I was about to jump on my bike to cycle home from my office at Amsterdam’s city center, when the sound of an email notification grabbed my attention. I slipped my phone out of my pocket. ”Possible covid case” read the message from our son’s daycare center. The staff had decided to close the center and asked us to pick up our child as soon as possible.
It was February 28, 2020, the early days of the pandemic. As a freelancer trained in infectious disease epidemiology and science communication, I had been following the viral proceedings with increasing intensity and published one feature article in a Dutch weekly just a week earlier. But this private occasion would completely suck me into this topic.
A lot was unclear with regards to the virus, although it seemed not very harmful for kids. My wife and I are both 40ish, so not ‘in a risk group’ according to the official communication provided by the Dutch public health authority RIVM. I have asthma, though, and my 92-year-old grandfather was in a hospice with terminal cancer. We desperately wanted to visit him before it was too late. My wife and I decided, however, in spite of the official advice at the time, to stay inside as a family for at least a week.
In the meantime, we tried to arrange a COVID-19 test for our son. We immediately ran into a forest of resistance. There was no need for a test, the municipal health officials told us. His risk was really low and we could just watch him carefully. He wouldn’t be infectious until he got symptoms, they assured us. I told them there were strong signs of presymptomatic transmission and a much wider range of symptoms, even mentioned specific publications in the scientific literature, but that wasn’t appreciated. And even when we called again after our son had developed a slight fever and a runny nose, they still said no. He needed an actual fever and a cough, otherwise it could as well be a harmless cold.
Based on our frustrating calls with the municipal health authorities and the communications of the RIVM, it became clear very soon that the Dutch authorities were underestimating the impact of the virus. The situation was not at all under control. This experience strongly influenced my reporting over the following two years. It sharpened my already critical view of the Dutch public health authorities and the way our politicians thought they should handle the crisis. At the same time, I later realized, this early experience created blind spots for other aspects of the pandemic and the impact of the measures being taken by governments including the Dutch one.
This early experience also made me think about my profession. As science journalists we are used to having an outsider position, talking to eminent experts, sometimes alongside patients or other stakeholders, and then impartially putting everything in perspective. But this time, we were no longer able to maintain that outsider position. Just as everyone around us, we were in the middle of it.
What lessons did the pandemic – this pressure cooked, highly condensed version of our day-to-day practice – have to offer? What decisions did we make, what perspectives did we or didn’t we represent in our reporting? What did the pandemic teach us about inpartiality, biases, about the role and value of journalism?
With this in mind, I set up a panel at the European Conference of Science Journalism which took place in Leiden, the Netherlands, in early July of this year. I invited four colleagues who had been intensively involved in COVID-19 reporting as well: Kai Kupferschmidt, Berlin-based contributing correspondent for Science magazine; London-based Nature staff writer Heidi Ledford; Italian freelancer Sergio Pistoi who worked for Nature Italy and created a series of YouTube COVID-19 explainers; and Lise Barneoud, freelancer based in France covering the pandemic for Le Monde and Mediapart.
They all agreed that their personal experience over the first weeks had quite an impact on their subsequent reporting. For Pistoi, this was the shock that such a disaster could take place in the prosperous northern region of his country, and the fact that the leading virology experts did not do a good job in managing and communicating about the outbreak. While he was first hesitant, he jumped in to provide basic information videos to the public and to publish critical articles about the leading government experts in his country. “I felt I had to do it,” Pistoi said.
Barneoud was living in the French countryside where measures were as strict as in the big cities where the virus had been raging, but without any infection confirmed. It triggered her to write a story in which she criticized the national, non-differentiating approach. She maintained that critical view of the centralized approach during the following months.
Ledford was not one of the designated COVID-19 reporters at Nature in London from the beginning, but she began getting worried when all across Europe and in many states of her home country, the United States, were closing schools while the United Kingdom did not. “I took my children from school and was getting increasingly aware of the fact that something was wrong with the UK response,” Ledford said.
Not long after that, she joined the COVID-19 team and stayed there for two years. Not an easy job, she recollects, because the science in those early days “was not very good,” leaving even more space for strongly opinionated experts and others to dominate the debate. ‘‘We had to be clear and humble at the same time, which was not an easy job with everyone demanding straight answers,” Ledford said.
Kupferschmidt had been in touch with leading experts who were attending an emergency meeting at WHO’s headquarter in Geneva in January 2020 and were the ones with by far the most information about the situation. They made clear to him that this was very serious and calling the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern was the right thing to do. “So experts who were not that involved took to Twitter to say this was an overreaction,” Kupferschmidt recalled. It affected his opinion of the experts. “Later on it might have been interesting to turn to these experts about other aspects of the pandemic,” Kupferschmidt said, “but my memory of their initial misjudgement was still very vivid."
I myself became one of the fiercest critics of the Dutch lenient approach and the assumption that we would have to let the virus spread among the ‘non-vulnerable’ to achieve herd immunity. I wrote analyses raising questions about the approach and the way it was presented.
During the subsequent waves, an activist movement of viral skeptics and individual rights advocates gained influence and the general public started complaining about the harsh measures being taken to curb the spread. But my main point of critique remained the same: Why first let the virus spread when you will eventually have to take strong measures to prevent the hospitals from being flooded anyway? This strategy gave us the worst of both worlds.
While I still stand behind this critique, I have become more open to certain (slightly) more skeptical views, including those arguing for a vaccination campaign focusing more on the vulnerable and less on the whole population, with more space for individual choice.
As long as there are diverse media outlets, I am convinced that it’s okay to let your values play a role in which topics you pick and which angles you chose – as long as you are clear about it and keep an open mind to other perspectives, stakes and alternatives. In fact: pretending your values do not impact your work, is in a way befooling your audience.
That doesn’t change the fact that we should be striving for balance and stay close to the science. Which becomes discomforting every now and then, when authorities are hesitant or even reluctant to keep up with the scientific evidence.
But through repetition of the basic public health science and updating it when deemed necessary, science journalism became a sobering, critical and influential voice in the public debate during the pandemic. More than ever, it became clear we had real impact. It made me think. Shouldn’t we be more at the forefront in other extraordinary and urgent debates that are currently taking place, about climate, the environment and other impacts of globalization and modern society as well?
We certainly deserve to. But we should also be wary. Our increasing influence might come at a price. Angry mobs on social media or annoyed politicians and scientific advisors are something most of us can deal with. But the more important our role becomes, the fiercer the reactions we can expect.
This is what Lise Barneoud experienced while covering the COVID-19 vaccinations in 2021. Living in the French countryside, she had already become aware of the strong antivaccination sentiments in her village. When a neighbor who already had been targeting her started harassing her again and did not stop when she clearly asked him to, she eventually decided to go to the police and press charges agains the neighbor. So far, she hasn’t experienced any further harrassment, but she is still anxious about meeting him on the street. To not make things worse, she decided to no longer discuss her articles and underlying ideas openly in her village. It made her sad, but she felt she had no other chroice, trying to protect her family. “This has really given my job an element I wasn’t familiar with,” Barneoud said.
So yes, the pandemic has shown how crucial and relevant our work is, but as our importance grows, so will forces mobilized against us. Are we up for the task? Well, according to the panel, we’re still getting ourselves together. Pistoi called the session in Leiden a sort of self-help group. “It has been intense,” Pistoi said. “I can say I haven’t really processed it yet.”
Jop de Vrieze is an Amsterdam-based science journalist whose focus is global health, infectious disease and other medical topics where science, politics and society clash. Together with his wife Zvezdana Vukojevic he received a 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award for a piece in NRC Handelsblad about what caused the death of their stillborn son Mikki and how the system could be improved to prevent his from happening to other children and their parents.