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2021 AAAS Media Fellow Maddie Bender Shares Her Experience Reporting on COVID-19

AAAS Mass Media Fellow Maddie Bender.

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic sent people around the world scrambling, not just for medical supplies such as masks and ventilators, but also for knowledge about the mysterious new virus that was spreading at an alarming rate. While scientists rushed to study the novel pathogen, science journalists were communicating as many new insights as possible to the public in real-time. AAAS Member Maddie Bender, a budding science journalist with a passion for infectious disease, found herself in the thick of it.

As COVID-19 spread, Bender took on more and more assignments. She was also more than prepared for the prospect of reporting on a pandemic. She has a passion for understanding the microscopic worlds of viruses and bacteria. In November 2019, just months before COVID-19 became a global issue, Bender was studying microbial evolution as part of her undergraduate degree at Yale University, and was in the midst of applying to the institution’s Master of Public Health program.

“In my cover letter, I literally wrote about how people are going to report on the next pandemic, and why it’s so critical that reporters have this grounding in public health and basic epidemiology,” Bender says. “And I didn’t realize just how relevant that would be.”

In March 2020, during spring break of her senior year, she visited her parents in New York City and never returned to her dorm in New Haven, Connecticut. Bender ended up quarantining in one of the most hard-hit cities during the early days of the pandemic, and amid this chaos began reporting on COVID-19 for different science media outlets, including Popular Science and Vice. Her COVID-19 coverage included everything from DIY ventilators to supercomputers that can support COVID-19 related data crunching.

“I think what has been most difficult for me, probably, has been capturing the human element and the magnitude of loss, and staying emotionally strong,” Bender says. In some cases, she says, the people she called for interviews on topics such as triage decisions and virtual mourning would hang up on her.

Among her favorite stories now is a piece exploring fair and equitable access to vaccines. The article discusses the morality of a Russian hacking group accessing secure information on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, when many open source advocates are in favor of sharing such data.

Another particularly interesting story Bender reported on delves into an underground network of pseudo-scientists that publish fake or fraudulent studies, for example attempting to link the coronavirus to 5G networks. Bender says learning about the “wild subculture” of these pseudo-scientists was an interesting journey.

“Looking into this group showed me how easy it is to publish something and make it look like credible science to the untrained eye, so it hasn’t surprised me to see conspiracy theories spread about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 or vaccines, which are backed by these sorts of pseudoscientific publications,”  she says.

And while the pandemic has brought to the forefront some questionable scientists and conspiracies, Bender notes that there is a silver lining, for example seeing more concepts of biology covered, like the researchers themselves, or genomic epidemiology and virus mutation. 

Bender just received her Master’s in Public Health this May. She is now looking to transition from part-time to full-time journalism through an exciting opportunity as a 2021 AAAS Media Fellow. Through the program, she will be spending the summer interning at Scientific American, with the opportunity to stay longer as part of a mentorship initiative offered by the publication.

In high school, Bender knew she was interested in journalism, and it wasn’t until she heard a podcast with renowned author Carl Zimmer that she became aware of science journalism as a career option.

“I realized that I can take this passion that I have for writing and journalism and combine it with my love for science, which I always thought would be my career, but didn’t exactly know in what way,” Bender explains.

Bender’s advice to others interested in pursuing science journalism is to focus on creating a portfolio demonstrating work, for example, writing for a school newspaper as she did, and also to consume as much science media as possible. For now, she’s excited to pick up even more tools of the trade during the next stage of her professional journey.

“I haven’t had any breaks (from education) to be a full-time employee and so I feel like this fellowship will give me all the tools that I need to start off in the media landscape, which is notoriously kind of scary,” says Bender. “I can’t think of a better way to jump-start my career.”

Maddie Bender with hand over her mouth, thinking.
Maddie Bender thinking of her next story. Photo by Marisa Peryer.
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