In a webinar marking the 75th anniversary of the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, four leading science journalists – all past winners of the award – discussed the challenges of covering a global pandemic and the changes it has brought to their craft. But they also stressed timeless rules of good journalism and the need to remind audiences how science works at a time when many are seeking quick answers and misinformation abounds.
The Sept. 24th discussion featured Carl Zimmer, a weekly columnist for The New York Times; Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight; Angela Saini, a British freelance journalist; and moderator Azeen Ghorayshi, science editor at BuzzFeed News.
Zimmer, a three-time winner of the AAAS Kavli award, spoke of having a “queasy feeling” in January that a novel coronavirus emerging in China was going to spread widely. Prior to the pandemic, Zimmer said, he was able to follow his curiosity when reporting stories. By the end of February, though, Zimmer’s editor shifted focus to the pandemic full time, and Zimmer began to tackle the basic biology of the virus for his readers.
Reporting on the pandemic has encouraged the Times to explore new formats that better suit the moment, Zimmer said. He has collaborated with colleagues like science graphics editor Jonathan Corum and “The Daily” podcast host Michael Barbaro to communicate the science in creative new forms. Zimmer said he has found that on topics such as vaccines “standard news sometimes doesn’t work so well because there’s so much news.” In working to find ways around this problem, Zimmer created a spreadsheet to help keep track of new vaccine developments. The spreadsheet eventually became the “Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker,” a feature on the Times website that “gets huge amounts of traffic every day,” Zimmer said.
Koerth, who won a 2018 AAAS Kavli gold award, also found herself thrown into new territory at FiveThirtyEight when news shifted towards the pandemic. For her, the pandemic came with a wave of uncertainty. Koerth said she refers to this uncertain space as the “muddy middle” – where nuance and subjectivity play a major role in making decisions. Scientists can collect data on the mortality and spread of the virus, assess the impact of safety precautions such as masks, and develop risk charts for various activities, Koerth said, but they “can’t always correctly predict how people will behave, and that makes it really hard to neatly assess risk.”
Koerth noted that this concept also applied to the protests that erupted across the country following the killing of George Floyd. Living in Minneapolis, Koerth did a lot of on the ground reporting during the protests. “I was out in these crowds with my mask on kind of assuming that there was going to be a lot of transmission happening,” Koerth said, “and then there just wasn’t.” The protests fell into the muddy middle, where decisions around risk were “chock full of uncertainty.”
UK-based author and freelance journalist Saini, who won a AAAS Kavli gold award in 2015, had a different experience. After contracting what she believes was coronavirus early during the pandemic, Saini avoided reporting on the topic entirely. When she did return to pandemic coverage, Saini found scientists and journalists perpetuating dangerous speculation that the large racial disparities in health data were due to genetic differences. She found this trend alarming. “Race is a social construct,” Saini told viewers. “It maps very poorly onto genes. It kind of went against the grain of everything we know about racial disparities and health to even suggest that there could be some kind of genetic explanation here.”
Saini said that was the point at which she decided to start reporting on the pandemic. She was selective about who she wanted to write for, first publishing a story in medical journal The Lancet. “I really wanted to target the medical community with this information,” Saini said, because she worried that the medical community itself was perpetuating misinformation. Her story was heavily peer reviewed and had a mixed response at first.
The turning point came with the killing of George Floyd, Saini said, when “the whole conversation and narrative around discrimination changed.” The following rise of the Black Lives Matter movement opened doors for Saini’s message. She sought to reach further audiences by publishing similar stories in two other outlets. Saini said she has also been involved with a variety of other efforts “to try and correct these false and problematic narratives around race and health.”
In a Q&A segment led by Ghorayshi, the three speakers remarked on the firehose of coronavirus preprints, the rise of misinformation and the future of science journalism in a post-pandemic world.
When asked how science journalism may change moving forward, Zimmer noted that the increasing frequency of preprint reporting will push science journalists to become more discerning and “up their game at being able to tell the good stuff from the garbage.” Koerth added that she avoids stories that feature a single journal paper, and she cautions against “inserting certainty into something that doesn’t have it.” Saini noted that science is a process – a corrective process – that changes over time and developing stories, too, change over time.
Furthermore, all three panelists agreed that journalists must remind their audiences that scientists can’t get everything right all the time. Scientists are also human and mistakes happen. Toward the end of the Q&A, Zimmer told viewers to be wary of viewing “scientists as high priests who deliver absolute knowledge and that knowledge never changes. That’s not how science works.” He predicted that some of the vaccines “are going to fail and fail big.”
Regarding the changing advice on masks, Koerth stressed: “Science is not a book of facts. It’s a process. And there are ways that process gets us answers and ways it doesn’t.” Saini also touched on these themes in her opening remarks, telling viewers that the rush to pick apart data early on led to undue speculation from scientists and journalists.
All three speakers seemed hopeful that the public nature of these mistakes could change the way science is reported in the future. Zimmer emphasized the value of showing how the scientific process works, while Koerth and Saini both recognized a shift towards weaving politics and society into science reporting. “Maybe there’s a recognition now that science reporting isn’t just for the back pages,” Saini told listeners. “This is something that’s deeply embedded in society and it’s really crucial to have journalists who can navigate, not just science, but how science interacts with politics and with society and sits in these different environments, because we need that.”