In a thoughtful online conversation about her coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, her grappling with misinformation about the disease and her introduction to the craft of science journalism, senior writer Helen Branswell of STAT spoke on Oct. 6 to Seth Mnookin, director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, in an event sponsored by the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The event honored the late Sharon Begley, the renowned journalist who was remembered for her precocious commitment to science writing, her diamond cutter’s ability to focus, her gracious willingness to help others and her “different take on things.” The latter quality was evident both in her AAAS Kavli Award-winning series on how a dogmatic approach to Alzheimer’s research shut down legitimate theories about its cause, and in her coverage of COVID-19, in which she published the earliest reports that patients were being put on ventilators too soon.
“We miss her as an organization, and I miss her as a friend,” said Helen Branswell, with whom Begley worked at health news website STAT. “And I miss the fact that we didn't get to see more of her COVID coverage.”
Winner of the 2020 George Polk Award for Public Service for her own coverage of COVID, Branswell was interviewed as part of the AAAS Kavli program’s annual fall lecture series and as a tribute to Begley, who died of cancer in January at age 64. Begley had been scheduled to give one of the lectures in 2020 after winning a 2019 AAAS Kavli Gold Award for her Alzheimer’s coverage, but the series was suspended because of the pandemic.
Mnookin interviewed Branswell during the online event, providing her an opportunity to present some of her insights on the profession and the area of reporting she shared with her late friend.
Branswell worked for The Canadian Press before joining STAT when it launched in 2015. Unlike Begley, who recorded in her college yearbook her intention to become a science journalist, Branswell said she covered everything from school boards to foreign news before being asked to become a health reporter in 2000.
“It was the best job on offer at the time,” she told Mnookin. Her first years, she said, involved “the steepest learning curve I have been on as a journalist.”
In early 2003, residents of the city of Toronto were contracting SARS, and Branswell found her footing as a medical reporter covering a disease outbreak.
“It was fascinating and it was comfortable in a way — if that doesn’t sound too odd — because it was a place where my breaking news background met this body of scientific reporting skill that I was building up,” Branswell said. "After that, I really leaned into that area whenever I could."
Years later, when Branswell saw a report about four mysterious cases of pneumonia in China, her disease outbreak alarms went off. Four days later, on January 4, 2020, she became the first journalist in the United States to publish a detailed article on COVID-19.
When China began quarantining entire cities, Branswell said, “It was clear that we were in a dangerous spot, but it was for me puzzling, and is puzzling still, how slowly the rest of the world seemed to come to grips that this was not going to go away.”
The fumbles over testing in the United States were especially concerning, she said.
“I don’t understand what happened within the CDC and the FDA on the testing issue,” Branswell said. “I understand that the first test was faulty. Why that wasn’t solved with more haste, I’m still not clear.
"Every minute that the country wasn’t testing, it was running blind.”
Asked about the pervasive misinformation that has surrounded COVID-19, its prevention and treatment, and how journalists can combat that misinformation, Branswell said that while she would like to debunk the myths, she fears that trying to do so can “give more oxygen” to them.
“It’s a really hard balance to strike. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like we as a profession have hit it appropriately,” she said. “I could write a piece debunking something, but whether or not the people who need to read it are going to read STAT, I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Branswell said the experts she consults with acknowledge that COVID-19, in one form or another, is here to stay.
“The door on eradication has been shut for a long time," she said. "All of the experts I talk to think this is going to be an endemic human coronavirus.” Branswell referred to “reaching a detente with the virus: We’ll have enough immunity on board as a population that [the virus] can’t collapse health-care systems in the way that it currently does.”
Branswell offered the opinion that “herd immunity,” in which enough of a population has achieved immunity that transmission becomes very highly unlikely and which comes into play with infectious diseases like measles, is unlikely in the case of COVID-19.
“This bug is here to stay, and it’s going to be part of the swarm of things that we have to deal with every winter.”
Throughout their Zoom conversation, both Branswell and Mnookin provided recollections of Begley.
Mnookin, who worked with Begley at Newsweek, said he remembers her typing away at her desk as the entire office was being packed up and relocated around her. Branswell said Begley was equally focused at STAT, arriving in the morning, putting her head down and starting to write. At the same time, Branswell said Begley’s desk was “busy” with visits from colleagues who wanted to “get her take on virtually anything.” Branswell said Begley always took time to listen and provide her insight.
When Mnookin asked Branswell how she and Begley each managed being “the daily reporter for one of the fastest-changing stories around” while also writing the bigger pieces, Branswell said: “When you can hit the balance, it really rejuvenates you. You have a chance to dig into something a little longer and talk to a few more people and think about something before having to hand it to your editor.”
Begley could have “coasted,” Branswell said, after arriving at STAT in 2015, and held out for the big stories with prize-winning potential. In fact, she did do the big, prize-winning stories, but “she also wrote dailies. She wrote a lot,” Branswell said. “And then she went home and wrote books — in her spare time. And I don’t understand that capacity. When I am done, I am exhausted.”
Branswell acknowledged the stress that covering the pandemic, with its overwhelming number of deaths, can cause. “I found it hard," she said. “A few days I could barely pull myself out of bed.” At one point, she received some counseling through her company’s employee assistance program. “It was what I needed at that moment to get me grounded again,” she said.
Branswell said it is currently very difficult for her to find time for the bigger stories because she is handling the daily flow of news around vaccine development. As she navigates the balance, she misses Begley. “I wish Sharon were around," Branswell said, "so I could ask her for advice on it.”