Covering an epidemic is like covering conflict: Why science reporters should be trained like war correspondents

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

Should science reporters be trained like war correspondents? For the last seven months I’ve been exploring misinformation and ways to improve the state of science journalism. But my interviews with reporters from all over the world leads me to worry about the state of science journalists.

I was told a story about a veteran war correspondent who took a young freelance writer under his wing. In 2014, when the Russian Federation annexed Crimea and the freelancer found himself in the midst of the action, he told the more experienced reporter how he planned to cover the story. Perhaps he should embed with fighters on both sides — you know, to get both sides of the story? The veteran journalist told him that was a bad idea. Stick with one group of fighters for now, he said. Crossing from one side to the other puts you in the line of fire.

The young reporter picked up a long list of life-saving advice from the veteran and I believe science writers need the same level of mentoring, or in lieu of a seasoned correspondent to take us under their wing, we need a toolkit with tips on how not to get sick or wind up dead when covering an outbreak.

An American journalist reporting on the West African Ebola epidemic did contract Ebola. That outbreak, which spread during 2014–2016, is one of many indicators that infectious disease outbreaks are going to be larger, more frequent and will spread faster.

Science writers are being dropped into these hot zones with a notebook and a deadline.

We want up-to-the minute updates from the frontlines of epidemics, but what about protections for the people covering the latest public health crises?

Before I was a journalist I was an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a thrilling assignment which began with a month-long bootcamp where we learned how to avoid death while hunting outbreaks.

In the year that I joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service, training on how to wear and safely take off a Tyvek suit was canceled because of federal funding cuts, but at least we had guidance on how to handle ourselves in an outbreak. (Later, when Ebola began creeping through West Africa, CDC staffers were armed with chocolate syrup and Tyvek suits and taught how to put on and disrobe from the suits without contaminating themselves with syrup.)

My training came in useful when I was crawling on the floor of an Arizona prison looking for the cause of an outbreak that had paralysed eight men. My training helped when I was tracking a flesh-eating bacteria across an American-Indian reservation. As a disease detective, I was often first at the scene of a deadly outbreak, but journalists are first-responders, too, and there’s little training for reporters as we count the dead, hold institutions accountable and monitor the outbreak response.

Many of the journalists I’ve interviewed have covered epidemics of Zika and Ebola and tell me they applied their journalism skills to their own well-being. Covering Zika? Soak clothes in buckets of permethrin, apply insect repellent and don’t go to an outbreak area if you’re pregnant. Interview your sources for your story but also ask them for information that can help keep you safe. Sounds pretty straightforward except that outbreaks are dynamic, stressful and often scary situations. There will be times when the cause of an outbreak and its mode of transmission are mysteries. Even when we know something about an infectious disease, information can change on a daily basis, especially with a relatively novel infection such as Zika which wasn’t widely understood to cause birth defects and problems with pregnancy.

Things got tricky with Ebola, too.

The freelance journalist who became infected in Liberia isn’t certain how he fell sick but thinks it may have happened while he was washing a car that had been used to transport a sick person.

Another journalist who covered the outbreak in Sierra Leone told me she used only one driver and one car during her whole reporting trip. She figured it would limit her chances of exposure to Ebola. She paid the driver a fairly large amount of cash each day on the condition that he wouldn’t drive anyone else in the same car.

These are just some of the tips I’m collating in a toolkit for science journalists or for any journalist who finds themselves covering a public health crisis. In my experience, newsrooms lack the time, person power and money to train reporters for every scenario. One editor at a told me when it came to covering Ebola, her team of veteran reporters was “winging it.” They had never dealt with an outbreak so large or so deadly.

Outbreaks fascinate me because they’re not just about wily bugs. They’re about human behaviours, politics, social issues and the messy intersection where these factors collide. In the context of covering an outbreak you find yourself asking: should I wear latex gloves or a mask while interviewing contacts? With any given disease, what’s the real likelihood of contracting it during an interview? And what about the ethical issues: imagine rolling up to a home in Liberia with a box of latex gloves when the doctors and nurses working inside the Ebola treatment units lack the most basic supplies.

In the case of the journalist who contracted Ebola, the fallout led to a member of his team — a high-profile medical reporter at NBC News — being fired when she was seen buying soup in New Jersey during what should have been her quarantine period. The journalist himself survived infection with Ebola, partly, he says, because he is white and American and was airlifted out of Liberia in a specially-equipped plane to a state-of-the-art treatment center in Nebraska. But what about West African journalists who risked their lives covering the story? Who was there to support them?

A toolkit won’t solve all these problems but it will go some way to serving local reporters as well as foreign correspondents. If they can stay well, think ahead about the ethical quandries and their own protections, they’ll be better placed to produce accurate and nuanced stories.

The young journalist covering Russia’s invasion of Crimea was lucky to have a veteran reporter help him navigate a conflict zone. Science journalists deserve the same.

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