The COVID-19 pandemic has been a golden opportunity for schemers, contrarians and conspiracy theorists to use public distress and thirst for knowledge to widen their reach. It is easy to get lost in those weeds and forget that there are good people whose intellectual rigour and clarity have provided us all with metaphorical flashlights during these dark times. They have looked at an expanding (and sometimes contracting) body of evidence on COVID-19, delineated the border between what we knew and didn’t know, and explained to us the maddening uncertainties of science in real-time.
I want to spotlight four health communicators or journalists whose work I have found exemplary. This is not to say that they will always be right. No one can claim perfection. But their calibrated sense of what constitutes good evidence has benefitted their compelling analyses and summaries, and I would invite you to check out their work. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Hilda Bastian, freelance science writer
Dr. Hilda Bastian is a digger. Not content with press releases and abstracts, she digs and digs and digs to get to the truth. She has been on top of COVID-19 vaccine development since day one and her coverage for outlets like Wired and The Atlantic has managed to walk a treacherous tightrope: holding pharmaceutical companies to account without painting science as a corrupt institution. I asked her via email what had been her most frustrating experience communication science during the pandemic. “Easily the widespread uncritical acceptance of vaccine developer hype and PR,” she replied. “The success of the myth-making hasn't just been frustrating: it's causing a lot of misinformation and the damage that results from that.”
Her March 30 piece in The Atlantic about reports of a dangerous but very rare blood disorder possibly tied to AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is a fine example of her talent for hitting the right balance and not succumbing to the enticing pull of the hot take. She concludes it by recognizing the “painful ambiguity” of the situation, and fleshing out this “painful ambiguity,” as she does, in a way that is both smart and reassuring is no easy task.
“People complain a lot about ‘armchair epidemiologists’,” she told me when asked about a rewarding part of her experience, “but I've loved people's eagerness to hike up their literacy about epidemiology and clinical trials.” A good place to start is her blog, appropriately named Absolutely Maybe.
Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, epidemiologist and Ph.D. student
Epidemiology, whose main focus is how diseases spread and can be controlled, was arguably the most talked-about scientific field of 2020 as questions arose regarding lockdowns, physical distancing and mask-wearing. Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, more commonly known as Gid M-K or the Health Nerd, became a beacon on Twitter for sorting through the mess of conflicting studies and armchair expertise. “My biggest frustration,” he wrote to me, “is, I think, how little people are willing to discuss uncertainty. Most of what I do is try and point out that this pandemic science is really hard and that most of these things are not perfect estimations.”
When a hyped-up study is released that looks too good to be true, Meyerowitz-Katz often breaks it down in a series of tweets, putting its methodology and statistics under the magnifying glass and pointing out major flaws in it. This kind of scientific scrutiny, which happens after a study is published, is rapidly becoming a necessary supplement to the more traditional peer review that takes place before publication, and social media platforms like Twitter are being used to disseminate these critical evaluations. Meyerowitz-Katz is one of many scientists using social media to hold scientific research to a higher standard and he’s not alone. “The most rewarding thing,” he told me, “is probably the people I've met since starting, including my brilliant co-authors and all of the epidemiology and virology Twitter crowd, who are brilliant!”
Helen Branswell, senior writer at STAT covering infectious diseases and global health
Helen Branswell brought her experience covering many outbreaks of infectious diseases like SARS, H1N1 influenza and Ebola to her reporting on COVID-19 for STAT, a news site dedicated to health and medical journalism. Her recent article on the myth of the good and the bad COVID vaccines explored the perils of classifying the vaccines based on their clinical trial efficacy rates like they’re competing at the Olympics. But even more frustrating to her? “The degree to which a too-large portion of the population seems to feel like the pandemic can be wished away.” She finds this complacency hard to swallow. “The virus has never cared if humans are bored by it; it is not bored by us. Each easing of restrictions has been followed by a new surge in cases that has been as predictable as day following night.” She calls it our collective unwillingness to learn.
And we have had plenty of time to learn. Her coverage of the pandemic for STAT began on January 4, 2020, by highlighting a “mystery pneumonia outbreak” that was possibly being caused by a new coronavirus. Being able to get the word out through STAT has been Branswell’s most rewarding experience reporting on the pandemic. “My editors at STAT took the outbreak in Wuhan seriously from the get-go; I started writing about it full time from the first week in January 2020, with their encouragement and support. STAT took the decision early on to put our pandemic coverage in front of our paywall; I believe we were the first or among the first outlets to do so. I think, given the size of our staff, we've made a significant contribution to the body of COVID coverage.“
Aaron E. Carroll, physician and host of Healthcare Triage
Since 2013, the YouTube show Healthcare Triage has been in production, digesting imperfect scientific studies for public consumption with the use of simple graphics and clear take-home messages. Its host is Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, a paediatrician and professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. What has been the most rewarding part of his job as host of Healthcare Triage in the middle of a pandemic? “There’s never been a time when what I might write or say has such an immediate impact,” he told me via email. “I’m very grateful for the platform!”
Indeed, with nearly 400,000 subscribers, the show has had a wide reach as it addressed important issues like COVID vaccine hesitancy, at-home testing, and the much-hyped claims surrounding vitamin D. Carroll also told me that he worries about the COVIDization of our attention spans: “It has been very hard to write or focus on anything else during the pandemic, and there are still lots of issues that need focus!”
My no-need-to-mention mention
A list like this would invite backlash if it did not include a name that so many people are now familiar with: Ed Yong. As a staff writer for The Atlantic, Yong’s masterful articles on the pandemic have been sobering and comprehensive, both elegant in their construction and raw in the truths they shared, and they have benefitted from amplifying the testimonials of a multitude of experts and underrepresented voices. He will no doubt win many awards for his pandemic writings.
All of these talented individuals have used their platforms to help us get a little bit more comfortable with the uncertainties of a life capsized by a tiny bug. It is easy to listen to confident people reassure us with falsehoods from the pulpit, but it is much more rewarding to pay attention to communicators who can balance our need for knowledge with the messy reality of scientific research.