World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. More than a year into the pandemic, the virus is mutating rapidly making more room for misinformation, leading to a surge in information around everyday developments with a constantly looming question: is this information reliable?
As governments across the world tirelessly work to cater to the pandemic, and scientists are neck-deep into research keeping pace with the virus, journalists' roles—especially the ones reporting medical and scientific stories—have become even more crucial. In such chaotic times, we've compiled a few tools to help with your fight against the innumerable challenges on this path.
While reporting on medical stories, journalists often rely on peer-reviewed research papers and scientific journals. But in a situation like this pandemic, where the virus mutation and curative research is moving at a rapid pace, research papers are being published ever so often with not enough time for peer-reviews to take place. While quoting from these "preprints"—the research papers that are yet to be reviewed—journalists have to be extra cautious when fact-checking, verifying the information wherever possible and backing it up with reliable sources.
"The news was moving faster than the peer review process. […] When you’re covering a preprint or press release, you have to make sure you’ve got the context right. Because when it’s gone through peer review, you have to trust that there’s been some level of scrutiny that people have looked at it and that it’s worth being in a major journal. But now you’re covering preprints, you have to really look carefully at it and make sure you’re not covering something that perhaps is nonsense. So it meant every new story we covered that there was just a little bit more work in the background that we had to do before we could fully trust the story.," explained Tim Newman, Senior News Editor at Medical News Today.
The pandemic also pushed journalists with no prior experience in medical reporting to take up this beat as it persisted and grew in scope. In a recent survey of 73 journalists from international news organizations conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Toronto, only 4 per cent had experience reporting on health, while 74 per cent said that they’re now reporting health-related stories. The Open Notebook, in an attempt to help reporters with no experience in medical reporting, spoke to 18 health journalists about their process.
A compilation by the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) lists down reliable sources for data. This includes reliable resources for mortality and transmission data, demographic data, vaccine rollout plans and strategies, and other quick tips and tricks around the COVID-19 pandemic. They also have regular newsletters that you can sign up for that will help you with medical and health care reporting.
Social media has proven to, yet again, establish its might in a time of crisis. While quoting social media information is outright risky, identifying reliable resources on social media is a good way to tap onto the latest happenings. For instance, this Twitter list has 38 members who are all responsibly sharing information and worthwhile reads about the ongoing crisis.
The pandemic and its developments (both on the virus and the curative side) can be overwhelming. The human stories—both heartbreaking and tear-jerking—have emerged in plenty through the past year. It can be difficult to balance COVID-reporting and other headlines that must continue to remain in focus. A responsible and balanced approach can help make journalism efforts more holistic and effective. And keep those trigger warnings in place, always. Stay at home, and stay safe.