Spotlight on: Liam Mannix
“People turn to facts at big moments, don’t they? They turn to truth and high quality journalism at crucial moments”.
Winner of Print/Text: Feature Writing Short (under 4000 words) at the 2020 Walkley Awards
Liam Mannix, The Age, “The Perfect Virus: Two gene tweaks that turned COVID-19 into a killer”
Liam Mannix’s feature “The Perfect Virus” both broke news and set out complex science in an accurate but accessible style. Written just as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Australia, when the global case tally was only 500,000, it broke new ground by explaining key concepts such as spike proteins, RaTG13 and furin and showing how the virus evolved from harmless to lethal. The article anticipated all the crucial elements of the pandemic story, long before they became part of the conversation.
We spoke with Liam shortly after his Walkley win about how the story came about, why he’s grown so passionate about science journalism, and why fact-based reporting is so critical to a democratic society.
How does it feel to be recognised by your peers with this kind of award recognition?
It’s pretty incredible to tell you the truth. The Walkleys are Australia’s highest award for journalism. You’re judged by your peers so, you know, the, the, the idea of being able to make the decision so to actually be singled out nationally is, it’s really a dream come true. As a young journalist I got very emotional after I won and I cried a little bit. (laughs).
How did you first get hold of the story?
At the time we were trying to just stay abreast of the latest developments. Our whole health and science team were working crazy long hours, every team across the country was. Everybody was focused on the minutiae, so there’s no real time for a big picture piece. This was right at the start when Australia only had a handful of cases.
I got a tip from the wonderful Marcus Strom, my predecessor as a science journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. He sent me a message saying, “Did you know we’ve actually got this scientist who knows everything about the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 because he was the first scientist out of China to actually decode its genome?”
So Marcus put me on to him [Professor Edward Holmes], and he just unfurled this incredible story. He talked about the virus’s evolution in a really granular detail, which, as a science journalist I started my career a bit wary of giving people too much detail. But it turns out that the audience actually (laughs) really loves that granular detail of changes to amino acid and changes to genes and changes to function.
So Eddie was able to spell all of that out, but he did something that is rare and is wonderful when scientists do it, in that he was able to put that research into the big picture. He said, “This was always coming. We knew that there would be a pandemic. We thought it would be a Coronavirus and we thought it would be from bats.” Because scientists have been screaming about this for years and their warnings have been ignored. He said, “We should have had the antivirals before it even came out.” And he said, “Research in this area has been cut to the bone and has been ignored.”
And so I almost had the skeleton of a story just from one long interview. And from there it was a matter of calling other sources and, and firming up what Eddie had to say, and putting skin on those bones.
Do you find it’s difficult to take quite detailed scientific information and then process it into something that your average reader will want to read and understand?
Yeah, it’s been a real learning process for me how to do this job well since I started it a few years ago. Thousands of studies come out every week and a lot of them have small, minute details that they add to the overall context. But I think to really do this job properly, the skill of the science journalist has to be putting together science and then working out what the big picture is. Scientists are much smarter than me but because they’re so siloed, because they’re so focused on what they’re doing, it can be hard to get that bigger picture out of them sometimes. And so when you find someone like Eddie, who can give you the big picture, you jump on it.
This is the sort of journalism that I’m trying to really lean into now. Rather than focusing on the studies of the day I am starting to suspect that it’s more helpful to people to zoom out and give them a big picture. I think that’s where this story comes in. It’s a different way of trying to do the job but, hopefully, it’s more helpful.
And it hit the sweet spot in this instance.
Yeah, I think it really resonated. It surprised me actually. I wrote it and I think it had 70,000 readers without much promotion. It’s had hundreds of thousands of readers now and thousands of tweets.
What did this story take in terms of time and resources?
It took me about three days. A day and a half of research and then a day and a half to write it. Eddie gave me the bones of the story. Then the other really difficult bit was I wanted to write a story really unpicking these two really integral things that this virus had that made it so contagious. One of those was trying to really understand the receptive binding domain, the way that the virus enters the cell.
Then I spent a lot of time wading through the literature to really understand the role of furin which is something that hasn’t really been discussed a lot. This idea that there’s this really perfect trigger, that fires the harpoon on the virus at exactly the right time that it’s punched through.
I was sitting there with all this academic literature and my eyes were rolling out of my head. So I called Professor Stephen Turner from Monash, who is a wonderful friend and sounding board, but the real skill that he has is that Stephen’s the guy who can tell you in plain language exactly what’s happening at almost the cellular level. And he was able to describe it for me. It’s like a story, you’ll see it in the story. You’ve got this big picture but then you’ve also got all these tiny, really detailed pieces on exactly what is happening at a cellular level when this virus invades our cells.
It surprised me that people liked that level of detail, but they really do. There’s a thirst, I think, among readers to have complex science explained to them. A lot of non-specialist science writing gives people a very surface level overview, but I think if you treat the audience like adults and smart people, you can explain really complex science to them in ways that they can understand and really will react to.
That has been one of the most pleasant things about doing this round. Discovering that there’s a real appetite for detail and nuance and complexity, which is really good if you’re a science reporter who wants to do those sort of stories.
What was it that made you want to get into journalism in the first place, and was health and science the beat that you had in mind?
My father actually inspired me to get into this career. He, his name’s Ian Mannix, and people at the ABC will know him very well. He’s a former foreign correspondent, manager at ABC, Melbourne, he ran their emergency warning service for a long time.
Dad really inspired me because he said, “This work is important. Being a journalist is important. If it’s done well and if it’s done ethically it can make society a better place. It can raise up issues of importance. It can inform discussion. It can give a voice to people who don’t have one.”
I don’t have a health and science background. I studied international politics at university. I have always loved science, as a nerd, really. I would always read about scientific issues but I never saw myself in science. I think partially because I had always wanted to be a journalist who’s on the front lines, digging up political scoops and exposés.
What I’ve discovered with science reporting is that science is full of scandals and full of people doing the wrong thing, which is great to write about. But science also gives you this really interesting weapon as a journalist. Journalism is really interesting facts, right? What is the fact? What is the truth? And when you’re reporting on politics it can be really hard to work out what those facts are, I think because you’ve got multiple actors who all have their own version of the truth.
Science gives you a set of tools to work out what the truth is and then you can use that and you can say, “Hey, you’re not acting in a manner that fits the best scientific effort. And you’re not acting in a manner that is truthful.” So it’s a powerful tool to really interrogate powerful people and powerful companies within society and what they’re doing. So I have really fallen in love with this ground.
What’s your message to the Australian public in general about why quality public interest journalism is perhaps more important than at any time before?
I think you just have to look at America, where they’re in the traps of this trend that has accelerated over the years of a loss of trust in institutions. And one of those institutions is mainstream media. And what that has meant is that many readers have stopped having a worldview that is based on truth and on objective facts. And that is so bad.
Whatever your politics, as a democratic society, it is a fundamental requirement that everybody agrees on an objective truth. I love debate. I welcome it. But we have to have a set of underlying facts that we can all agree on, and journalism is the way that that happens. And so I think it’s so important that it is supported.
I think it’s on the public record that people have been subscribing to newspapers in droves, including ours, since the start of the pandemic and that really fills me with hope. This industry when I started a few years ago was financially struggling. But now it seems like we’re getting towards a position where we’re a bit stronger and we can hope to grow even. The Age has been hiring people for the first time in my memory. The New York Times, they’re making more money off digital than print and The Age’s subscriptions are climbing.
People turn to facts at big moments, don’t they? They turn to truth and high quality journalism at crucial moments, which I think is a good thing.
Is there anybody else that you would like to thank?
I have to thank Caroline Zielinski, my partner. She backs me 110% and believes in me more than I do. My parents Ian and Sue Mannix, and my sister, Hayley, for the love and support through the years and for encouraging me in this career. And the scientists in the article and in particular Professor Eddie Holmes, who has won a bunch of awards for his work this year. And Professor Stephen Turner, who is a long time supporter of great science journalism, and he’s one of the best science communicators in the country.
Liam Mannix is the national science reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He started his career in Adelaide at InDaily, where he won two Young Journalist of the Year Awards, and received a cadetship at The Age in 2014. There he moved into science reporting, winning the Eureka Prize for Science Reporting in 2019.
Interview by Nick Jarvis.
The 2020 Walkley Award for Print/Text: Feature Writing Short (under 4000 words) is supported by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.