November 25, 2020 (Updated )
Coronavirus was always going to be a bittersweet moment for science journalists. On the one hand, it’s the story of the century, and right in the middle of their beat. On the other, it’s come with never-ending uncertainty, confusion, and loss.
Within mere weeks, COVID19 developed from ‘something happening abroad’ to everyone and their dog needing to know the signs and symptoms of the virus.
By March both ‘pandemic’ and ‘coronavirus’ had become breakout terms on Google, defined as a rise in searches of more than 5,000 percent. The latter was also the first new topic in years to become the most searched phrase on the site.
Soon, the story turned into something much bigger, with reporters of all disciplines pitching in. Not much later, it became a political scavenger hunt of “following the science”. But what exactly is the science?
‘A Lot Of The Debate Is Being Led By Big Political Correspondents’
This is something that Deborah Cohen, BBC Newsnight correspondent, tries to answer when speaking at Women in Journalism’s coronavirus panel in the wake of the first wave. “A lot of the debate is being led by big political correspondents,” she explains, but stresses the importance of digging deeper into the soundbites.
“100,000 tests, what does that mean from a scientific perspective? When we’ve changed metrics, are we measuring hospital deaths or are we capturing the ONS data, which captures much broader death?”
As a science writer, she has had to step back from her usual way of reporting and focus on being a confident, clear voice in the newsroom, with an emphasis on providing context.
“There’s been a lot of shouting about what is abnormal, when there is a lack of understanding about what is normal. As an investigative journalist I’m going for the jugular, but I think the role for me has changed in that it’s calm, cool analysis that’s been required.”
“As an investigative journalist, I’m going for the jugular, but I think the role for me has changed, in that it’s calm, cool analysis that’s been required.”
Deborah Cohen, BBC Newsnight
As well as this need to look at the hard facts, another trend noticed by Guardian science correspondent Hannah Devlin was the immense appetite for information. At one point, she was producing three coronavirus podcast episodes a week.
“It was quite a challenge to balance feeding out that demand for information with how much we could actually say [that] was worth putting out.”
‘Develop A Good Relationship With A Handful Of Experts’
The Guardian’s readership was receptive, but it was now more important than ever to have good connections in both the science and political spheres.
“One of the really helpful things is developing a good relationship with a handful of experts. Once you develop that rapport with someone, you feel you can pick up the phone and get a bit of a steer on things,” says Hannah.
Since many of the results were announced through press releases due to the sheer speed of events, instead of a published and peer reviewed journal, Hannah found it a little difficult to analyse the data without it right in front her and found some organisations not the most helpful – which is where her expert contacts came in.
“The Department of Health, [for example], I find really difficult to get the most factual information out of. I do think the approach has been to not be transparent about things and to deliberately not respond to factual queries sometimes and just respond after a story has gone. We’ve seen that quite a lot and I don’t see that as a constructive way to work together.”
“Once you develop that rapport with someone, you feel you can pick up the phone and get a bit of a steer on things.”
As if the pressure of writing about coronavirus as a specialist wasn’t enough, Anjana Ahuja, a science writer at the Financial Times, also had to consider that her words could affect global markets.
“It’s been a real challenge for the FT, with the potential to move markets with your coverage, and that’s a conversation that we’ve had. You do not only have the responsibility of the science and making that call right, but you’re also potentially feeding the market beast with what you’re saying, and it’s been so tough getting that balance right.”
‘Knowing When Not To Step In Is As Much As An Art In The Game’
Anjana has written about the relationship between science and policy for years, but echoing Hannah, she agrees that the daily briefings even confused her sometimes. It was something she found particularly concerning – because if she couldn’t understand them, who could?
“When you can see there is widespread confusion, that’s a great time to step in but that also depends on you having resolved the confusion in your head,” she advises. “Knowing when not to step in is probably as much an art in the game as knowing when to.”
“Have a simple message, get it straight in your head, if you don’t know what the story is in one line, go back to the start.”
Finding the time to breathe and not get overwhelmed, Anjana’s top tip for keeping reporting crisp and relevant. “Have a simple message, get it straight in your head – if you don’t know what the story is in one line, go back to the start, reconsider, take a bit of time and don’t be afraid to talk to people who know more that you, because everyone knows more than you when you’re at the start of a story.”
Equally, freelancer Jacqui Thornton, says never to assume people will be too busy to help with a story – even though she has faced some access problems without a publication behind her. “With the doctors being so busy you’d imagine they don’t want to speak to you, but they’ve been really, really keen to get their stories out there. So, it’s been great talking to some fantastic doctors and that’s been really inspirational.”
‘We Had To Tear Up Our Journalistic And Business Model’
Reporting aside though, the pandemic has also brought more existential challenges to publishers. For Rachel Buchanan, a health and science journalist at the BBC, she had to adapt very quickly if she wanted to make content that was both relevant and suitable for broadcast.
“If you think about the first couple of months, there was no other story in town,” she reflects. However, despite making television production indefinitely harder, Rachel believes some of these changes could be a positive.
“There was a lot of unnecessary travelling around to be in places [before], and often we don’t have enough space to edit so those technical lessons have been really good.”
“It’s been so interesting, [like] fixing an aircraft while flying.”
Meanwhile, over at New Scientist, coronavirus pushed editor, Emily Wilson into completely changing how she ran both the newsroom and business as a whole.
“We had to tear up our journalistic model while also tearing up our business model – having to furlough people, cutting our staff down to 80 percent hours pay for a bit. We had to do all that kind of thing to keep everything moving while getting a mag out to every single person.”
They also made the call early on not to try and compete with other news outlets on breaking news, instead focusing on context and deep dives. It’s a move that worked out well, with the magazine actually seeing an increase in sales.
Our Top Three Tips For Covering Coronavirus 🧪
- Make sure you know the story yourself before you report on it – take a step back to breathe and analyse the data or reports you’ve been sent.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – having experts or sources you can call on to help you get the context will make a big difference.
- Keep your message simple – the whole of the story needs to be able to understood from the top line alone.
“We thought that with people only being able to get the mag in supermarkets we would plummet – but thankfully that hasn’t been the case. We disaster planned for a much worse case scenario than has happened.”
All in all though, she says she’s enjoyed covering one of the world’s biggest stories. “It’s been so interesting, [like] fixing an aircraft while flying.”
Wherever you’re coming from within the industry, covering coronavirus hasn’t been easy. It’s been emotional, exhausting and eventful – and often all three at the same time. It’s meant ripping up existing ways of doing things and not being afraid of change – and it’s a story that’s seeped into every single beat.
As these journalists show though, as long as you have a clear head and keep a focus on the facts, the wall of information isn’t insurmountable.