What are Media Briefings?

Journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic are facing the challenges of fast-changing information and limited access to expert sources. Many reporters without deep science backgrounds find themselves in uncharted terrain as they strive to provide accurate and actionable health information to their communities. On March 19th, SciLine hosted an instructive briefing on best practices—and pitfalls to avoid—when covering COVID-19, with tips from two veteran health and science reporters and perspective from a leader in the public health community.

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Introduction

[00:00:01]

RICK WEISS: Welcome, everybody. I’m Rick Weiss, director of SciLine. Very quick introduction here. For those unfamiliar with SciLine, we are a philanthropically supported, editorially independent free service for U.S. journalists based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science here in Washington, D.C. We’re here to help reporters covering stories about health, science and the environment or, really, any kind of story that can be strengthened by the inclusion of some science in that story. Our primary commitment is to local and general assignment reporters at general readership news outlets, reporters who provide people the information they need to make evidence-based decisions in their lives, a very important theme these days. Among our services are a matching service through which we connect reporters to scientists’ sources and briefings like this one. We know that many of you have been pulled off your usual desks – local news desks, business desks, even the sports and entertainment desks – to cover this health and science story.

So what we will hear from our panelists today and what your questions should best address is the how of covering COVID-19, best practices and pitfalls to avoid. SciLine also hosts briefings to get reporters up to speed on the actual science in the news, and we look forward to inviting you to one or more of those featuring COVID-19 science experts in the weeks ahead. A quick note before we start about our matching service. When we get requests from reporters for connecting to an expert via the forum on our website, we reach out to multiple scientists in our database who we determine are good matches for your request. And when a scientist confirms they’re available and can talk before your deadline, we share their contact information with you. Now, of course, scientists with COVID expertise are incredibly busy right now. So do call us when you are in need of a scientific expert for your COVID stories. But it really helps to give us as much notice ahead of your deadline as possible so we can identify an expert who can actually carve out time to talk to you in their schedule.

So with that, let’s get started. I’m not going to take time to give full introductions to our three panelists today. That information is on the SciLine website. I’ll just say that we will hear first from Laura Helmuth, who is the health and science editor at The Washington Post. We’ll then hear from Caroline Chen, health care reporter at ProPublica, and then Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, for a perspective on what’s going on journalistically from the public health community vantage point. And with that, Laura, take it away.

Presentations

COVID-19 Reporting Tips and Pitfalls (1)

[00:02:46]

LAURA HELMUTH:

All right. Thanks very much. And thanks to all of you for coming today, especially welcome to people who haven’t covered a lot of health and science in the past. We’re glad to have you on the team. I’m sure you know already this is one of the most important stories you’re going to cover in the course of your careers. Your work has the potential to change people’s understanding, which can change their behavior, which can change the course of the pandemic. So it’s really important to get it right. And we’ll all make mistakes. We’ll get better as this goes on. And we’re going to have a lot of opportunity because this pandemic is going to last a long time. We’re just getting started with it in the U.S., and it’s going to get a lot worse. So the thing to do right away if you haven’t yet – but even if you have, you can always do more – is to source up. Find people at your local hospitals, public health departments, universities, especially in infectious disease, epidemiology, your local nursing homes, homeless shelters and get their cellphones now because it’s going to be a lot harder to reach them in the future. And, you know, they’re going to be overwhelmed with their own work as well as responding to media queries.

And, of course, use SciLine. They’ve got an excellent group of – database of scientists who are really good at talking to the media and want to help. And they want to get good, accurate, trustworthy information out there. So there are a lot of resources to help you, especially if you’re coming to this a little bit cold to these fields. So – and, of course, even though it’s going to last a long time, the story is changing very quickly. And it’s also the case that the science is changing very quickly. So you want to make sure that you have, you know, just reliable scientists who can help you evaluate the evidence, identify misinformation, debunk things that are false and also show what’s missing. And for those of you who haven’t covered research a lot before, one thing to know is that science can be really messy. And it’s especially now kind of messy because it’s – you know, it’s always an iterative self-correcting process.

But right now, people are throwing out all their data, trying to share it, trying to collaborate, you know, test things, try things. And it’s – you know, we’re seeing it happen in real time. So I think showing your readers how the process of science is working in a way – even though a lot of what the message will be is that here are the things that scientists don’t know yet or they thought they knew, and then it turned out it was something else. But kind of showing that process I think can alleviate anxiety a little bit in your readers if they kind of know that, like, smart people are working really hard to understand this and that it’s evolving quickly. And it’s really good to show what’s not known yet, what scientists are working on to kind of help, you know, demystify it and to let everybody know that, you know, we’re all kind of in this together. And some of what is known – you know, as this story progresses, you’re going to repeat a lot of information. And that’s a good thing to do because even though you may feel like you’ve written the same story a dozen times already, you know, we’re still seeing – the audience is growing dramatically. There’s – a lot of people are interested in more people all the time.

So it’s good to just repeat what is known, even though it’s not news. And that is, you know, basic public health information, like explaining social distancing, why we’re doing it, why it’s so important, why hand-washing matters, why you want to stay home if you’re sick. So all those things, even though you may be sick of saying it after a while, you have to kind of keep saying it. And then one thing that – you know, whenever there is something new and scary in the news, you’ll get – you’ll see conspiracy theories and misinformation, some of it innocent but some of it, you know, weaponized or done by bots or whatever. So a big part of your job, probably bigger than what it’s been in the past, is going to be debunking misinformation and replacing it with real information. And there’s a lot of research on how to do this right. And maybe that’s something we can talk about in the discussion section. But, basically, you don’t want to amplify conspiracy theories or misinformation if they’re still kind of not very – not spreading very far. But if they are, if they’re getting a lot of attention, there’s kind of best practices for replacing a false fact – or false idea with something that’s actually true, helping people understand where the false information came from so it’s not so mysterious why they’re seeing it all over their Facebook feeds. And as you’re doing that, I think it’s really important right now to pay attention to the questions that your readers have.

And you can do this, you know, nationally or internationally by looking at Google Trends to see what people are asking about. But, you know, pay attention to your own comment section, to social media, to Twitter to see what people are confused about or really desperate to know about or scared about. And sometimes, that can be a really good way to know what your next target should be or what you should be including in your next stories. And right now, you know, the appetite is endless. And don’t worry too much about repeating yourself. And don’t worry about getting scooped by competitors. You know, if somebody else has the story, don’t let that stop you from doing the story, too. You have an audience. They have an audience. The number of people who didn’t see any given story is functionally infinite. So keep writing. Pace yourselves. It’s going to be a long time. Science writers and health writers tend to be very collegial and very friendly on Twitter. So if you have questions, you know, talk to us there, too, as well as these sorts of events. But anyhow, good luck. And I’m looking forward to our conversation.

RICK WEISS: Thanks very much, Laura. Great start. Caroline.

COVID-19 Reporting Tips and Pitfalls (2)

[00:08:16]

CAROLINE CHEN: Hi. Thanks for having me. I’m really glad to get to chat with you all. So I’ve been covering this outbreak for about four weeks now, and it’s been very hectic. So I wanted to split my advice into a few categories. So first, I wanted to say things are moving really, really fast. They’re moving faster than usual, so I’m trying to be extra precise about some things. And, specifically, that’s about the information I’m getting, when I’m getting it and where I’m getting that from. So as an example, I would say things that are related to testing capacity, like how much testing capacity, say, your local lab has – that’s changing day to day right now. Sometimes it’s changing hour to hour. This kind of freaks me out. So as an example, at one point, I was working on a story where I was trying to calculate the total national capacity of, you know, how many patients per week, the – this was four weeks ago when I was trying to do this – how many patients per week we could test in America.

And at a certain point after a lot of reporting, I had nailed down that number. And then six hours later, I was wrong. I was just dead wrong because that had changed. OK? And that, like, obviously freaks me out as a reporter. So this is going to be happening under your feet, and I think the best thing you can do with something like that is really date – rigorously date your information. So say like, as of Monday morning, you know, this lab could test X number of patients per day. Same thing is happening right now with supplies. So if you’re reporting on your local hospital or you’re reporting on your state in terms of how much PPE they have, which is personal protective equipment, that kind of thing right now is tremendously in flux. And this is information that your readers want to know, which is, like, where can I get tested? How much testing capacity is there? How much supply do we have? How much supply does the state have? How much supply does my hospital have? So this is stuff that you’re reporting on, and this is stuff that is literally changing hour by hour. So I would just be very, very precise about when you got that information and where you got that information from.

Separately, where I want you to be really not precise is things that are estimates. And so I have asked SciLine to share with you a post that I just did about forecasts. And I think that there are certain categories of numbers that scientists are still working on, and these are things like forecasts and projections, so like how many people are infected in America right now. This is actually a number that’s really, really hard to calculate. And so whenever you see someone say something like, you know, they’re – you know, at one point, the Ohio public health department said there are a hundred thousand Ohioans infected – like, and they said, like, we know there are a hundred thousand Ohioans infected. And then, like, of course people, like, put that in the headline, like, and then later – like, a few days later, they said, oh, we were just guesstimating. Like, that also freaks me out as a reporter. Like, what if I put that in a headline and then later, like, they were guesstimating? So I hope that post that I wrote is helpful to help explain, like, why these things are forecast and why these are squishy numbers. Another thing that is a squishy number is the fatality rate.

So what your reader wants to know is, if I get infected, will I die, right? So to know that, you would have to know how many people are infected. We can’t know that right now. All we can know is how many people who are tested are confirmed positive, right? That’s how the mortality rate that you’re seeing out there is calculated. So the WHO – what they are reporting is the number of reported deaths divided by the number of laboratory-confirmed cases. So you need to understand that number. And what you need to translate to your reader is that this is currently a moving number. And so that type of number is where I try to be not very precise, and I try to convey to my reader that, at this point in time – I use language like, scientists understand, you know, this to be, or, like, it is estimated that – you know? And I try to give readers a sense that this is an estimate or this is an approximation.

I also try to make it clear what we don’t know, so things like what’s going to happen when the seasons change – you know, this is a question – you know, or like what is the effect on kids. Like, this is data that’s being generated right now. And, like, what we understand is changing week to week. So I think that is a role where we as reporters can really help readers understand, like, what is not known. And just being very frank and very candid and explaining what scientists are still trying to figure out in very plain language is really helpful to readers. I’m not going to go much longer, but I think the last big principle for me is that, like, we really care about humans and trying to keep that as a first principle. So early on, I think there was a lot of confusion about, like, test kits versus tests versus samples. And I think people were really confused about all these numbers being thrown around. Like, 1.5 million tests – what does that mean? And I think a driving principle that helped me was, like, I want to know units of people.

So, like, one thing that I kept trying to run around, explain to my other reporters was that, you know, you’ve got to divide samples by two because, like, most labs are test – running two samples per person. And I think it helps you as a reporter to keep asking your officials or whoever’s talking you, like, you just gave me a number in tests; can you tell me that number in people? Like, I want the units in people. And then try to – whatever you print, always try to get it down to a unit of people because your readers are going to hear 1.5 million tests, and they’re going to think, oh, that’s 1.5 million people. And, actually, you probably need to, like, divide that number down somehow. So it helps you as a reporter to always try to get it in the units that you care about and that your readers care about. So keep thinking about that. Do I have one more minute, Rick?

RICK WEISS: Sure.

[00:14:05]

CAROLINE CHEN: My one more minute is this is really hard. And, like, you just have to take care of your mental health because this is happening to you as well. Like, you’re probably worried about your family members. You’re probably, like, suddenly being, like, forced to work from home and all of that. And you’re working long hours, and I just wanted to acknowledge that, like, this is hard for you. Like, I had a moment this past weekend where I was reading, like, my inbox of people, like, all telling me how hard it was on the front line. And I got really sad. Like, this is normal. And, like, it – like, I just want to say, like, you have to take care of yourself. And, like, if this gets really hard, that’s really to be expected. And, like, be talking to your editor about how this process is affecting you.

RICK WEISS: Great. A really important last point, especially since we’re all isolated right now, you know, almost by definition. So it only exacerbates the difficulty. Fantastic. Thank you, Caroline. Dr. Benjamin, your perspective.

A Public Health Expert’s Perspective

[00:15:03]

GEORGES BENJAMIN:

Hi. Hello, everyone. What I thought I would do is spend my time talking a little bit about the public health system and maybe some ways to approach some of your potential sources. You know, the public health system of the United States is a partnership between the federal, state and local governmental entities, primarily. There is certainly a nongovernmental public health piece out here, like organizations like the American Public Health Association. There’s a state health officers and local health officers association. And all of us in many ways work with the federal government even though we’re private nonprofits, just like you have in the health sector with a hospital association and a medical society as well. But on the governmental public health side, this partnership – they work together. They augment each other’s work, theoretically with a little overlap, but they do augment the work. So, for example, sometimes, federal staff are deployed to the state or local level to help them with activities, particularly when the – there’s a need for additional bodies or there is a need in particular for a particular expertise that may not occur at one of the other levels. When you think about public health, those of us – I used to be an emergency room doc.

So I was an ER doc. I was very comfortable taking care of each patient, patient by patient by patient. And, of course, that’s how our usual health care system functions. The public health system tends to step back, wants to look at the whole population and do things that affect people in a much broader way – by the tens, by the thousands, frankly, by the millions in some cases. But both of these two systems really work collaborating together, particularly when you have an outbreak like this that occurs. In the old days, which maybe was only about 25, 30 years ago, an outbreak – a big 700-, 800-person outbreak would have occurred. Maybe a local reporter would’ve picked up the story, but it wouldn’t have been big news. Today, any kind of outbreak – you know, 15 people with measles (inaudible). And so we’re all acting in an environment which has dramatically changed in terms of the visibility of these kinds of outbreaks. And, of course, this is a big one. We’re – as we think about this outbreak, just know that there are several agencies, and I just – we walked through those.

But let me just tell you that even though we talk about the Department of Health and Human Services, turns out that you actually look at almost every federal agency of government, it often has some health component. It may only be an occupational health component for its employees. But in many cases, it also has some kind of regulatory authority or engagement. So for example, there are obviously people that do health in the Office of Management and Budget. There are people who do health in the Department of Treasury. There are obviously people who do health in Department of Agriculture. So most of the federal agencies have some health component, even though the bulk of what is done is in the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency that’s getting the most visibility right now is the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a – in many cases, people think of as the nation’s public health agency, although all the other entities do public health as well. It is fundamentally a nonregulatory agency. It does do a little regulation, but not a lot. It does a lot of early stage research. So for example, the diagnostic test was conceived and constructed at CDC.

But because it is not a regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration actually served as the regulator of whether or not that test could be used or not. And, of course, the FDA is the regulator over a whole range of activities of the federal government. The National Institute of Health, of course, is the nation’s, and really the world’s, premier research entity, but it also is not the only place where research is done. Again, in almost any agency of the federal government, some research occurs. And a lot of that research is not only multisectorial, multi-agency, but it may bring together a range of different scientists on a variety of occasions. Then, of course, you have the Center for – CMS, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which actually pays for health care services for Medicare and Medicaid, but it also is a major regulator of the health care sector itself. So you’ve seen that a lot, of course – the fact that Medicare and Medicaid pay for such an enormous amount of our health care dollar, both for seniors and individuals that are low-income. It has an enormous influence on the other health sectors. In fact, it’s generally said that if Medicare passes a regulation, all the other insurers in the country usually follow that to align with Medicare.

We’ve got a peculiar entity called the ASPR, which is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. When that office was initially set up, it was set up to be an adviser to the secretary. It has become much more of an operational organization. And even today, now, it is the functional lead within the Department of Health and Human Services for this response. And then you have a bunch of offices that advise the secretary – the assistant secretary for health and the surgeon general, of course, who reports to the assistant secretary for health – who provide general policy coordinating and guidance to the Department of Health and Human Services and serve as health advisers to the secretary, who, of course, is not a physician or a nurse or – although he has, certainly, an enormous experience in the health management sector, he doesn’t have a clinical background.

Again, with that background, I was in a very complicated organization which looks at at least 18%, 19% of our gross domestic product when you look at the health care sector itself. I know you’re finding a plethora of potential sources – academics, individuals, preparedness centers. I always encourage people to spend a little bit of time understanding who you’re talking to and what they do before you call them. A lot of times, you get someone who’s really smart, done a lot of studies but has never done it before. And it’s useful to know that. You know, I spend a fair amount of time practicing emergency medicine. I don’t see patients anymore, but I’ve been a health officer twice. But I’m very different than getting an emergency doc from the hospital and very different from getting someone who’s a current health officer. I can talk about my archaeological past, but it’s very difficult now since I’m not actually on the front line doing that stuff. Although, obviously, like, most people have a pretty good pipeline.

But I do think it’s important that one thinks about who you’re talking to and really think about, to some degree, the questions you want to ask that person so that you get the issues you really want to get out first. A lot of these folks don’t have a lot of time, and there are lots of us armchair public health practitioners today that are eager to give you advice. But I do think you have to be very careful about where you’re getting that advice from because a lot of it is uninformed. And in an environment like this where there’s so much fear and confusion, it makes it much more difficult to get the facts. I think it’s very important for you to figure out how to balance facts with fear. One of the things we try in public health not to do is scare people but give them truthful information to be transparent, to be clear in our communication, to do really good risk communication. And sometimes we don’t want to say some things because we really don’t know. And I think we should tell people, look; I really don’t know. And in this particular outbreak, we know a lot about coronaviruses, but we know very little about how this new strain of coronavirus will ultimately work.

And so a lot of the assumptions people are making are based on what they think will happen versus what they really know will happen, even after looking at the other nations that have been impacted. And then finally, I think – as you’re closing out your stories, I know there’s always this person who’s a headliner writer who comes in and writes the headline after you’ve written your story. It’s important, particularly in this time, to make sure that the headline writer hasn’t changed the content of your story and – or your editor. I know they go through, and they write up stuff, and they edit stuff all the time. It’s very important to push back if they fundamentally have changed what you think you know or they’re putting in place something that probably an hour from now you know, although you can’t prove it, will be incorrect. With that, I’ll stop.

[00:24:53]

RICK WEISS: Thank you. Thank you very much, Dr. Benjamin. And we will now move to the Q&A portion. Again, you can hover your cursors over the bottom of your screen and put in your questions in the Q&A box there. And please remember that we’re looking at questions about how to cover – how to cover today’s story as opposed to the science itself.

Q&A


How can a weekly newspaper keep readers updated when information changes so fast?


RICK WEISS: And I’m going to start right here with one from Melina Bourdeau at the Belchertown Sentinel in Massachusetts. I’m an editor of two weekly newspapers. One of the struggles we’ve faced covering this is that the information continues to change and develop so quickly that by the time our newspaper is printed, the information is outdated. What are some tips for how we can provide helpful and accurate information to people on a weekly basis?

LAURA HELMUTH: Whew.

RICK WEISS: Tough, boy, in this age of moment-to-moment moving news.

[00:25:52]

LAURA HELMUTH: I think some of Caroline’s points were really important about, you know, putting a time stamp on everything you do. You know, as of Friday, X number of people have been diagnosed. But, yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, in a way, you know, with a weekly, you know – you must deal with this all the time, trying to come up with, you know, with the bigger-picture story that goes beyond the minutia of what happened that day. I think, you know, this isn’t going away. The pandemic’s still going to be here in three weeks. So, you know, giving people your best information, it actually – even if some of the specifics change, they – if some of the details change, the big picture is going to be with us for months.

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah. I would add to that that I think some of the long – even though some of the, you know, some things are changing definitely day to day, that some of the big-picture advice I haven’t seen changed. You know, it’s sort of things like, you know, what should you do if you think that you’re sick which I’ve repeated over and over again, which – you know, like, the big-order principles haven’t changed, which are, you know, you don’t want to rush to the ER, right? You don’t want to overwhelm the system. And, you know, you want to call, right? Something like that hasn’t changed for weeks – you know, explaining the idea of what flattening the curve is. Now, of course, the forecast and the case counts are going to change literally day to day, moment to moment. But, like, what flattening the curve is and how that works – that is something that holds.

We were all, obviously, thinking about this at ProPublica, you know, as we do like big investments for news apps, you know – that we’re trying to think, like, what can last for months? So we just put up a big news app about hospital beds, and that’s, like, over a really long-term forecast, you know? Like, what would happen, you know, if 20% of the American population ended up infected over 12 months, over 16 months, you know? Like, so that’s something we’re hoping will be able to stand up for months. So we’re kind of trying to think along those timelines. So I hope that helps, I think. And so maybe for your region, I would think about questions like hospital preparedness. How are they trying to prepare? Like, that’s kind of a story that maybe would be able to hold for at least a week.


How should reporters handle misinformation from political sources?


[00:28:10]

RICK WEISS: Great, great advice. We have a question here from Nick Gerbis at KJZZ, news public radio, in Arizona. From the beginning, reporters have struggled with how to handle misinformation from the White House. This morning, FDA’s Stephen Hahn had to walk back some of what the president said about potential treatments and vaccines. How can we cut through the confusion? And I think this plays off Dr. Benjamin’s point that, you know, there are a lot of people in the federal government who have some key responsibility here. But we all know that a lot of them are pretty hard to reach, and sometimes they offer conflicting information. Any tips for how to deal with that?

GEORGES BENJAMIN: You know, I’ll put it this way because I want to be respectful of the White House. You know, the president is a political figure and is given a political message. And you should, I think, view what the president says as a political message. And I would get the facts from the people that have the facts. And I would do that with anybody, any boss who has been given the information but may not be the best – may not understand that information the most and maybe trying to give you the CliffsNotes version of what they think they heard. Not trying to – you know, not saying that they’re trying to mislead you, but they’re giving you what they perceive as the CliffsNotes version. And some of the better communicators in the White House – obviously Dr. Fauci, Dr. Giroir, as two examples, are really good communicators. Outside the White House, Scott Gottlieb, who was immediate past FDA commissioner, Tom Frieden, Julie Gerberding, former CDC directors. And then there’s a range, obviously, of people – talking heads on TV – that are pretty good at it.

But I think to the extent that one can hear it and then vet that information, recognizing that the politician giving it to you is giving you the Cliff’s Notes versions to a political lens usually and the scientific folks are giving you the information they have at the very moment – now, having been on TV many years ago, fortunately, and having given what I thought was the absolute right answer only to have a different answer scroll below me – it is a very embarrassing moment to have. But the way, of course, the expert should handle that is to acknowledge information has changed. Here’s the new information, or, I’ll get back with you and try to correct it. But I think vetting that information is very, very important and not just simply – not assuming that there is some new policy guidance because quite frankly, they’re building this while they’re flying it. And so while they may think they’re giving you good policy guidance initially, two hours later, as they’re rethinking and looking at how people have heard it, they may not have communicated effectively. Frankly, they’re not very good at it right now, and that’s one of the challenges.

[00:31:11]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah. I can speak to that one, too, if you like. This is a big challenge, and we’re seeing, you know, the White House task force – it’s not uncommon. It’s happened several times that they say something is kind of – that Trump or Pence say something is coming, and it’s not true. So it’s really important to not get – to not just say, you know, President Trump said X, Y and Z, but to say what the evidence is. And if he says something that’s incorrect, you know, you have to say what the actual, you know, truth of the matter is and make it clear that you’re going with the evidence whatever he said. And this – it’s really important to not get into a kind of a false balance trap where – if he says one thing and every epidemiologist in the world says the other, those aren’t two equivalent points of view. And you just really want to go with the evidence here and not get caught up in the – in reporting the political points that are being made.

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah. I would just – to jump on something that Laura said right at the beginning of her talk which I just want to double down on – is I think every reporter should have one epidemiologist at least, one, like, lab person, one lab expert and one, like emergency room slash, like, in your local hospital person on cellphone if you can – like, their cellphone number – as much as you can. So, like, every time I get an expert, I try to get their cellphone number, like, even if they don’t realize that I’m getting their cellphone number. When they call me, I immediately save it to my cellphone because, like, if you can and they become your friend, like, the second that your local official or the White House – you know, whichever you’re covering – like, they say something and you’re not sure, if you are able to, like, immediately text them and be like, hey; like, so-and-so said this number. Does that ring true to you? Even if you’re not quoting them – right? – like, some of these people can become your off-the-record friend. And I have a lot of sources help me out on an off-the-record basis. They’re never going to be quoted, but they just text me back, and they’re like, check that, you know? And that helps me be a better reporter. So, like, you want to have those experts in your pocket who can help you, like, put the brakes on. Or if they just write back and they’re like, yeah, sounds ballpark right, you know, that, like, helps me move faster. So try to at least build up that range of sources that you have on speed dial would be my advice.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Yeah. Let me add, get your – one of your local health officers as well on that list, someone who’s actually run a governmental public health department. And if you can’t get the person who is currently the health officer, get the last one that had the job before.

RICK WEISS: Yeah. Actually, the idea of having an off-the-record friend is a great idea. I remember in my time as a reporter, just getting someone to tell me off the record, you know, I wouldn’t write that if I were you, from someone I trusted is extremely helpful.


When and how should conspiracy theories be covered?


RICK WEISS: Question from Rachel Bichell (ph) at the Mountain West News Bureau – can we please discuss best practices on debunking conspiracy theories and how to gauge when a conspiracy theory crosses into the worth addressing category? Maybe the ibuprofen versus Tylenol story of the last couple of days is a good example. Laura, you had mentioned that challenge. You want to address that?

[00:34:28]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, that’s a big problem. That’s one of the most important judgment calls we’re making every day – all of us – about covering this pandemic because there is so much misinformation. And a lot of – you know, some of it is just people who are scared and confused and sort of amplifying little grains of information in weird ways, and then there’s a game of telephone. And then there are a lot of people who are trying to profit off of this. So they’re claiming that they’re – you know, they’re selling these quack products or vitamins and saying it’ll protect you from coronavirus. So a lot of people are trying to make money off of fear and confusion. So it’s – I think, you know, if it’s – you know, there’s a judgment call. Like, if – you know, if a conspiracy theory hasn’t gotten much air yet, you don’t want to amplify it. You don’t want to expose more people to it. But a lot of them are popping up and going bananas, especially on Facebook, so I think it’s a real public service to, you know – to look into it, to say, no; this virus wasn’t created in a biosecurity lab. It’s not, you know, some conspiracy by the Chinese. It’s not some conspiracy by the army.

And to – and when you do that, you know, to say, here’s where it’s circulating; this is where the rumor came from; here’s what we actually know, and to, you know, immediately – because people don’t like to hear, you know, this thing you may have seen that you believed briefly is wrong, you big dummy, you know, even if you – obviously you wouldn’t say that. But implicitly, when you’re correcting something that somebody believed that isn’t correct, you know, that’s a little bit hard for people to take. So the best way to do it is to replace – you know, to say, this is what people are saying – that, actually, this is true, and also to explain why it’s circulating so widely and why there’s a grain of truth to it to sort of say, hey, look; we get it. We understand why people might be believing this or might want to believe this – and to do it in a very sort of empathetic way and very clear way. And also, like, just very simple debunkings work. And there’s a lot of research on, like, how effective it is when people see misinformation corrected on social media.

And especially, like, if somebody posts something incorrect and their friends say, hey, that’s not right, and link to Snopes or link to a debunking from a major news source, the people who observe that interaction are much more likely to recognize, oh, yeah, that was wrong. So there’s a lot of things you can do as a reporter to, you know, have – make these resources available so that everybody can help, you know, correct one another’s misinformation. It’s a really important service right now.

[00:37:03]

GEORGES BENJAMIN: You know, there are – I’ve said that there are few miracles in medicine – maybe one or two, but there are not very many. And even if they are miracles, we have miracle cures stuffed up that everybody’s kind of ignored. Suddenly, we’ve discovered because we did a study and they work. It’s because we did a study and they work. But in most cases, I always ask people, show me the study. Show me the – you know, show me the original source of that information before I go with it anytime it’s around a therapeutic issue in health because most of the time, you cannot find the original source of that miracle cure, that treatment that works. And 9 times out of 10, if it sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t make any sense. And so I just think that people see something because they’re grasping for a cure.

RICK WEISS: Caroline, were you going to say something there?

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah. The only thing I would add is just – and this is something I’ve learned from our audience team. It’s not from me. This is credit to them. It’s to really think about how something will move on social. So instead of having, like, a question in a headline, like, you know, was this thing created in a lab, you know, like, actually put the answer that you want people to circulate in the headline. And, you know, like we recently did a story – one of my colleagues – about a Facebook group of like – something like 27,000 firefighters that believed in a lot of these conspiracy theories. It’s like IAFF Firefighters for Trump that were circulating. These are, like, first responders. And, you know, I kind of naively was like, well, why aren’t we putting some of the photos, you know, screenshots we’ve gotten from our sources, you know, in here, because that would really show kind of like what is being circulated. And our social media people were like, because we don’t want to, like, circulate those photos. And I was like, oh, yeah, duh. Like, obviously.

I’m so glad we have people who think about this because I was just thinking, I want this story to be read, you know? And I want these eye-catching photos out there. So I was like, OK, yeah. Thank you. I’m glad that there are other people thinking about this and I’m not making these choices. But that was a good reminder for me, myself. And so, yeah, maybe if you’re debunking things to try to think, like, a lot of people don’t read past the headline or a lot of people don’t read past the tweet, and they just retweet it. So, like, trying to get the right information, like, in that tweet or in that headline.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: But let me ask one other thing. This is the same family of viruses that causes the common cold. Very different strain now. But I think if you can benchmark it and say, OK, would this – if I had the common cold today, would this help me? Based on your own experience, the answer is usually no. You know, like drinking warm water – the last time I checked, doesn’t make a cold go away. So there are just some simple commonsense things that if you benchmark this disease process – realize it’s a very bad disease and it’s a different strain. And if you were around covering SARS, again, use that as your frame of reference. I think at least you can get things into the this-is-not-possible-at-all camp versus things that maybe potentially we need to look into.


What are some strategies for telling people-focused stories about COVID-19?


[00:40:30]

RICK WEISS: Great. Question here from Erica Moser at The Day in Connecticut. It’s a struggle just to keep up with the many announcements and updates from government and public health officials. What are some good ways to find and share the stories of how this is impacting the average person in the community?

CAROLINE CHEN: Do you want me to go first?

RICK WEISS: Sure.

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah. So I – obviously, like, my beat is national, so I’m trying to do this on a national level. So depending on how your paper works – like ProPublica very early on put out, actually, just a callout, which you can find on our website, which is www.propublica.org/coronavirus. And we specifically made that link very easy to remember so that we could repeat it on air and share it with our partners, which, again, like this is our audience team – like, they think about things like this. Bless them. And we did that specifically because we wanted to hear from people on the ground. And, you know, if you have, like, a Facebook group or if you have, like, a, you know, social media in any way, I think actively soliciting that and using those opportunities, like, helps you, like, bring people towards you. And I think that that has worked really well to help us get started to hear people on the ground. But also, I think, like, as we’ve written stories, every time we’ve written a story, we’ve then generated more people coming in.

So for example, we – one of my colleagues wrote a story that just pointed out that, like, even as the CDC has been saying, like, no – at that point, I think it was, like, no mass gatherings that have over 50 people and starting to tell people to do social distancing, that millions of federal workers were still waiting for a work-from-home order. Like, we posted that. Instantly, like, people started writing in to us, you know, from the federal government. Like, we started getting tips and sources immediately. So I think, like, if you start thinking about, like, what is the story you’re trying to do? What is the community you’re trying to reach? And what is a story – like, the opening salvo (ph) of a story, potentially, that you could do as a reporter to indicate that you’re interested in that area – that might be a way for you to start connecting with the community that you’re particularly interested in.

RICK WEISS: Great.

[00:42:44]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, and it’s really important to do those stories. Thanks for asking about that, because it is – you know, even though this is a global pandemic, it’s going to play out different ways in different locations, and you may be the only outlet that’s covering what’s happening in your hospital, in your school system, in your, you know, homeless population. So those stories are super valuable not just for your own community, but for helping everybody around the country, around the world kind of know what’s happening where. And I think some of the most touching stories that I’ve seen lately have come out of Italy, where people are really showing the impact there. And even if you’re in a community where there haven’t been cases yet, there almost certainly will be, so that it’ll help if you have some connections with the local hospitals and with local schools to, you know, help you find people who can talk about their experiences being sick or being quarantined. And it’s really important to humanize this because, you know, when people are scared, it brings out the worst in them. And we’ve already seen, you know, a lot of racism, a lot of kind of othering, like, oh, it’s only, you know, smokers or it’s only people from China who get this.

And so I think it really helps people understand that everybody is vulnerable and that social distancing is something we do to protect everybody, and everybody matters.


How can reporters cover the panic around COVID-19 without contributing to it?


[00:44:01]

RICK WEISS: You know, along those lines, we have a question from Jess Dyer from WBTV in Charlotte, N.C. One thing we’ve been struggling with is people blaming the media for hysteria, like stores selling out of essentials. It’s become a double-edged sword. We are trying to show what’s happening at stores, but some say our showcasing causes the chaos. How can we approach stories like this better so we don’t cause panic but still report on what’s happening? Tough challenge.

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah. I think…

RICK WEISS: Caroline?

CAROLINE CHEN: I think I’ve been, you know, in – I’ve had the opportunity lately to, like, do a number of TV interviews. And I think that the ones that have been most effective, in my opinion, is ones where they give an opportunity to discuss, like, what people can do, right? So you aren’t just, like, talking about the alarm, but you’re also giving people very practical suggestions. So, you know, to not just film people panic buying, but then to have the very practical suggestions of, like, you know, when to go to the grocery store, you know, to try to space things out, and go at times, you know, like maybe odd hours, if you can, so that you’re not, like, jammed in there along with everybody else. And then to have, like – really bring on expert voices – right? – who say that you don’t need to have, like, three months’ worth of groceries – like, what the actual recommendations are. And I think to bring on those, like, calm, expert voices who are trusted to be able to explain to people, like, yes, the recommendation is to have a two week, you know, two weeks of groceries. You know, and you can slowly start to do that. And also to give people just the sense – I think what I’ve been trying to transmit in the columns that I wrote, like the one that we just sent, is that, like, you aren’t helpless and that, like, this isn’t just happening to you. But, like, we all have a part to play in flattening the curve.

And part of that is, like, not panicking and just, like, deliberately playing your part, right? And I think that this is sort of really done through tone. And that’s tricky, right? But I think that that’s something that I try to think a lot about, which is, like, language and tone and, like, actual word choice and how I do that in my writing and, like, what is the message I’m trying to convey? So I think that you can kind of do both. We did a grocery store story where we tried to show, actually, the fear of the grocery workers, you know? And I think, like, trying to put a human face on their fear maybe would also help give people pause to not just go and, like, panic-buy unnecessarily. So I don’t know if that was effective for somebody who was reading that, but I think trying to show the human faces on both sides maybe, hopefully, was a way to approach that.

[00:46:44]

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Yeah, we’ve got lots of guidance out there in terms of, you know, what people need to do to hunker down for an emergency. And normally, what would’ve happened would’ve been the government would’ve said, OK, we want you to hunker down for three days, seven days, 14 days, and you need to be prepared with the following stuff. That did not happen this time. And that’s unfortunate because it resulted, as you know, in all the toilet paper going away and water going away. And if you have access to a water fountain, you didn’t – or, you know, probably didn’t need to buy water. And I have no idea why people bought the toilet paper. But – and it may have been that, you know, it was used, obviously, in lieu of other tissues. But nonetheless, we didn’t get the kind of guidance that we want.

So there are, again, organizations that are nonprofits that are trying to put out that information, remind of the Red Cross information. So I think that one of the things that when you’re doing these kinds of stories – any kind of an emergency story – we ought to anticipate that people are going to do panic buying and that there’s going to be price gouging, and there are going to be people that are not going to be able to get to those to buy what they need to buy. And so I think having those stories in the can – an approach to them might be a way to get ahead of that story so that we don’t scare people.

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah, and on the part of the question about, what do we do about people accusing the media of panic mongering or exaggerating? – I think, you know, this has been a problem for, you know, forever, but it’s gotten a lot worse lately of, you know, politicians weaponizing mistrust of the press. It’s more important than ever to kind of show our work to show, you know, this is the guidance. This is how we know what we know. This is who we’re talking to. And just be really transparent and kind of signal our virtues, signal our honesty. If we wrote something last week that turns out to not be true – you know, not be accurate a week later, as we always do, we run correction spells. So kind of explain, this is why the message was this a week ago, but now, as more information has come out, now the best guidance is that. So I think we just have to keep, you know, amplifying trustworthy messages and show people repeatedly and tell them, not just show them, but tell them that they should trust us on this.

RICK WEISS: And it seems to me – just to echo, you know, one of Caroline’s points – there are positive and solutions-based stories that can be written. And it’s important that the media keeps focusing on that, too. I’m thinking of something even in The New York Times this morning that I saw about the feelings for wanting to help others that have been generated by this crisis and some of the, you know, the better side of people coming out. And it’s great that some of that is being reported on as well.


When is it appropriate for a reporter to use first-hand narrative in a story about COVID-19?


RICK WEISS: Question from Kathiann Kowalski, freelance reporter in Ohio. Reporters generally aren’t personally involved in the stories they report, but COVID-19 is affecting all of us in a variety of ways. When might it become appropriate to disclose one’s personal situation in a story? For example, if you’re reporting on mental health aspects of isolation, but, gee, you’re feeling isolated. Or suggestions for families who might have a loved one who’s been diagnosed. When does it work to get personal? Laura?

[00:50:17]

LAURA HELMUTH: Yeah. Yeah, I think – hi, Kathiann. I think that that can be very empowering. It can make a story even more engaging and touching when you reveal that you’re in this together, too. I mean, I think that’s always – you know, it depends on the sort of story it is. If it’s a straight news story, it might not be appropriate. But I think there’s a lot of room here for first-person stories or for reported pieces that, you know, either parenthetically or somehow weave in the fact that the person who’s telling you the story is also experiencing this element of it. So I would say err on the side of humanizing yourself. And your editor can always take it out, but I think it’s worth a shot to put in your own experiences. I think readers really respond well to that.

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah, so you can tell me how you feel about my having first person in the story that was dropped in the chat. And also, I’m going to drop one more in there, which is the one that preceded it – which was very much geared towards being personal because the point of that was, like, my previous outbreak coverage experience and growing up through SARS. And that was, like, the first time I’d ever done first person for ProPublica. And I was very uncomfortable with it. And our newsletter editor was like, more first person, Caroline, more first person. And I was like, I don’t want to do this. And I got, like, a really great reader response. And it was really surprising to me, actually. So I’m still not super comfortable with it.

The second column I did, which is the one that was posted first – like, at the end of it, I, like, could talk about, like, how upsetting and overwhelming this has all been to me, which, again, I was, like, kind of uncomfortable writing. And, again, my editors were like, yes, we really like that. And, again, that is, like, what readers have responded really well to. So I think I concede at this point that, like, first person has its uses as much as I – it’s not my instinct to do in the first place. But I kind of think, at least for me, I use it when I think that there is a point to it, right? Like, for me, I think both of those columns were very numbers-heavy. And, like, a big part of them was, for me, like, trying to, like, demystify NUMBERS and try to get behind numbers. But something I’m trying to remind people is that, like, behind all these forecast and numbers are people, right? Like, that is the message I’m trying to get across here. And, like, that is why we need to care about this, both as reporters and as human beings. So to me, it made sense for me to then insert myself because it’s part of the bigger message that I’m trying to drive across as a reporter. So that’s a call I’m making right now. And it seems, based on the feedback I’m getting, that it is working. And maybe that might be something for you to just think about – like, whether you think that introducing yourself into the piece helps to enhance, like, really the goal of the story you’re writing.


How can reporters start preparing for longer-term investigations and accountability stories about COVID-19?


[00:53: 13]

RICK WEISS: It certainly seems like a possible tool for developing trust with the reader, as well. And that seems so important right now on a story like this at a time like this. Question here from Penelope Overton at the Portland Press Herald. This might best be going to you first, Caroline, given your background in investigative. But right now we’re swamped with coverage of daily transmission progression, daily government reaction, daily economic impact. But we know we need to start planning and gathering strength for longer form, bigger impact investigations and narratives. Any suggestions on where to start? What are the most important accountability stories that have been done in past pandemics, even if in other nations?

CAROLINE CHEN: Oh, man. We are trying to do accountability reporting at high speed at ProPublica, and it is hard. I will just say that. I think the main thing to maybe focus in on is, like, who do you think are the most vulnerable people that you – populations you care about in your local area? And they’re – it’s going to be specific to your community. But, like, for us, like, I think the broad question has been, like, how prepared is the U.S.? And then within that, we have sort of subpopulations that we are particularly caring about. So for example, obviously, health care workers have been, like, a primary focus of ours. So I think, like, one of the – I think, like, an obvious thread to follow would be, like, if there is a population that you care about that is not being taken care of, whether that is health care workers or elderly people in nursing home facilities, then the next question would be, like, why are they not being taken care of? And then the question is, who is responsible for that? And why has this – why is there this gap here in care? And sort of just follow that thread of questions. And is it that something was supposed to have happened, and it didn’t? Who dropped the ball there? And who is accountable for that decision? So that would sort of be like the long-term story there, right? I think there are some really fast turnaround stories that you can do along the way.

So for example, two nights ago, I got a DM from somebody who worked at a Spencer’s store. And the Spencer’s store – as I found out at the moment I got the DM – is a store that sells sex toys and gag gifts. And they were like, we’re all being forced to work there. People who are calling in sick, and they can’t get tested, and we don’t have – like, a lot of people don’t have a lot of paid sick leave. And, you know, we’re trying to, like, complain on social media. And, like, the store is deleting our Facebook posts off. And one of our editors was like, this is ridiculous and just, like, started calling people and called the store. And the next morning, the store was like, we’re closing our stores. Like, instant impact, instant story. It took about, like, four hours of reporting. So, like, that’s pretty fast accountability journalism that can be done on the fly. Same thing with, like, the federal workers who were waiting to – you know, waiting for a work-from-home – like, I think you can do accountability journalism pretty quickly at this point in time. Like, the bar’s pretty low for some of these stories. But I’m happy to discuss that more offline if you want to email me.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: You know, and I would say that the telework experience of Americans is going to be a fascinating story. You know, I think that the person that writes that story across all the various sectors and how they’re impacted is going to be fascinating. You know, I know here we – you know, we had to figure out how to telework, who are our central employees – and we’re basically, like everybody else, teleworking. I’m right now the only one in the building. And we have some employees, you know, that simply didn’t have access to Wi-Fi. So we had to make other accommodations for them. And I know the federal government – that’s a big issue for them. There are lots of federal employees whose job requires that they be at their desk. So how they’re teleworking is a fascinating story. I have no idea.


Which parts of the public health system are most responsible, and should be held most accountable, in their response to the pandemic?


[00:57:24]

RICK WEISS: You know, Dr. Benjamin is just on the accountability angle here. We had another question from Angela Caputo at APM Reports, who in part was just wondering, you know, which aspects of the public health or health system in the country arguably had some of the major responsibilities that are deserving of some attention in these follow-up stories if we want to, you know, if not throw them under the bus, at least, you know, do the work that needs to be done so that mistakes don’t get repeated next time? Do you have any suggestions about targets in the soft sense of that word?

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Well, I think at some point, we’re going to want to try to figure out what happened with the testing and understand what happened with the testing from a practical perspective. And, you know, we have made testing the single most important reason that this whole thing is – you know, has failed. I remind people that 100 years ago, at least in 1918, we didn’t have tests. We didn’t have a vaccine. We didn’t have pharmaceuticals. It was a terrible outbreak, but through a range of social-distancing strategies, we got through it. And I wonder whether the test has an outsized role with people’s focus because that was a thing people could focus on. I think that in my view, the lack of early coordination in this has been a real challenge. You know, it would not have been uncommon for the Department of Health and Human Services, as an example, to, you know, start leading the way. Even CDC, being the agency managing a big outbreak overseas – that’s how it’s always done. I mean, they did – we’ve done that with Ebola, with SARS, with, you know, with measles outbreaks either overseas and here. That’s not uncommon.

The issue is at what point do you do the handoff – and it becomes a projection that this is going to be a really, really big thing. And it was clear the moment that the president decided that he was going to, you know, keep people coming in from China that at least they thought this was a big deal, and then I think from my perspective, the stories about what the handoffs were and how we made those decisions. Now, maybe those stories have to wait till later, but it’s real clear that preparedness is very important. I think another interesting story, of course, is the fact that – and this is – you know, again, you need to know this is an advocacy position, but I think I’m OK doing it now. The fact that we have an event, we throw a lot of money after it, we don’t quite solve everything, we withdraw the money. And then when an event comes that we’re not even prepared to do, we have to throw more money and resources and infrastructure. So what you have is kind of this yo-yo infrastructure that keeps – and funding that keeps going on over time. And you couple that with an administration that has not yet really figured out how to do the intergovernmental thing in an effective way.

I mean, every administration has that problem until you have an event, you know, and you do the emergency – you have to figure out how to work together very differently than you do day-to-day. But quite frankly, this administration has a challenge. The Bush administration had that early on in Katrina as a challenge. Now, some of us think they recovered, they got better over time. But the speed in which you respond in an emergency is proportional to your practice and how often you practice stuff so that everybody knows their role and how you adjust your roles in an emergency. So I think there’s a lot of systems issues that one can look at very, very clearly. And I think, still, that many of the right people aren’t kind of brought in a room in some of these discussions. I know the state and local health departments, for example, are embedded in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention command center. But are the right people embedded in the, you know, in the federal system? I don’t know. When I was in Maryland and we activated our command center, we had a seat for the Medical Society, the Hospital Association, Chamber of Commerce, of course all the government agencies, and the governor so that we could effectively talk to one another in the command center and make joint decisions in a much more effective way. It is unclear to me how we’re doing that right now.


How would you recommend journalists explain to their audiences why this pandemic is so serious?


[01:02:13]

RICK WEISS: Interesting to see what we learn, eventually, about how decisions were made, indeed. We’re almost out of time here. I want to ask one question here from Bellamy Pailthorp at KNKX in Washington. How would you recommend – and this is really, I think, a big question on a lot of reporters’ and people’s minds right now. How would you recommend explaining to our audiences why this epidemic is so serious and why it’s been necessary to shut down the entire economy? I’ve heard from folks saying that if you look at death rates alone, for example, it doesn’t seem that deadly. How can we explain why the response to this is so much bigger than anything else we’ve seen in our lifetime? It’s really a key question. Laura, I see you’re nodding. Do you want to start?

LAURA HELMUTH: Oh, yeah. This is a tough one. I mean, there’s a lot of answers to that. I mean, I think fundamentally, you know, one of the most important messages for our audiences is that the small decisions they make today can be the difference. You know, they’re life-or-death decisions. Things we do completely innocently can spread this disease to people who are very vulnerable. And it might not seem deadly to some members of the audience, but, you know, pretty much everybody either, you know, has an underlying condition or is of an age that they’re at a great risk of dying from this or loves people who have underlying conditions or are at an age where they’re at great risk of dying from it. And I think we can’t repeat that too often – that even though the specific death rate isn’t known yet, partly because we don’t know the denominator – we don’t know how many people are really walking around infected without major symptoms – but we know that it does kill, you know, a lot of people. And we just – we don’t know how bad it’s going to be, but we do know that these basic public health measures will save lives.

Like, the fact that we’re all working from home today, we’re saving lives by working from home. And it’s a really hard concept. And that’s where the problems with – you know, one of the big accountability stories is why has public health been so underfunded for so long? And it’s partly that you can’t, you know, take the credit for something that is invisible, for something that doesn’t happen. But what we’re doing right now is preventing deaths, and that is a little bit hard to conceive of. So I think that’s one reason why we just have to keep explaining over and over what the principle of social distancing is, how flattening the curve matters. The fact that, you know, if emergency rooms get overrun with a surge of people who are sick, it’s not just going to be people infected with coronavirus who die, but people who have other problems that would’ve been treated routinely, and they won’t have access to hospital services and things like that. I mean, it’s really hard to imagine just how badly the health system could collapse if the surge happens. And so every – you know, all of us are the ones who have to work all together to prevent that from happening.

[01:05:07]

CAROLINE CHEN: Yeah. One thing I just want to maybe point out which might be helpful for some of your listeners is, one, I would – just do not compare it to the flu, OK? It is not – that’s not helpful to anyone, and I think it’s really confusing. It is definitely – I earlier said that, you know, case fatality rates are very squishy numbers, and we have to help people understand that. But I think that it is – you know, we can confidently say that it is more deadly than the flu. I don’t think that’s a helpful comparison. And I think that, you know, as the media, we should just drop that. We’ve heard this 80% – you know, 80% is mild, 80% is mild. I do want to explain where that comes from, and I’m happy to share the actual data behind that, and you can find the data online.

The 80% comes from a dataset that came out of China with about 70,000 cases. And the category of mild was – like, very mild – like, close to no symptoms up to mild pneumonia. Like, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get mild pneumonia. Mild pneumonia is not what I typically think of as mild. The next category up was severe – OK? – which was like, you know, bad, in hospital. And then the next category up from that was, like, critical, which is – I’m reading here – exhibited respiratory failure, septic shock and/or multiple organ dysfunction, OK? So, like, the 80% range is like – really, I think it’s fair to call it, like, mild to moderate. So I think, like, just explaining to people what the actual, like, potential symptoms are and, as more data comes out, like, probably characterizing it. First, I think helping people understand what the severity – like, what the symptoms and potential consequences are is, like, one part of this. I think the other thing to help people understand is that, like, confirmed cases right now is really hiding the spread of the disease.

And getting experts either to – you know, if you’re on TV, on TV to really explain that. Explain why, like, the numbers you’re seeing reported and confirmed is not showing the true extent. And then I think, third, like, helping people understand, like, how spread works, like what an exponential curve actually is. And I think what’s helpful here is the fact that, like, the U.S. is behind other countries. And I think you can actually show with charts how the curve worked in other countries because the initial curve looks exactly the same for all the other countries, and you can actually see the exponential curve, and you can already see that starting in the U.S. And I think that’s really helpful. So you can say even though, like, right now in whatever your locality is, you only have 50 confirmed tests, like, this is what an exponential curve looks like. And if we don’t bend the curve, this is how it’s going to continue to go up. And this is going to really hurt our hospitals, and we need to give them as much time as possible to prepare. And I think that this is where we can really point to other countries that have come before us and talk about, like, the scenarios we’re trying to avoid, which is, you know, in Wuhan, in Italy.

So I hope that helps as sort of concepts that you want to bring forward because I think, unfortunately, due to the lack of testing, the actual confirmed case numbers can look really low, and that can be really confusing to people because they’re like, there are only 50 confirmed cases in the whole state. What’s the big deal?

RICK WEISS: Yeah, and…

GEORGES BENJAMIN: Let me just add one thing. Preventable is probably not the right word, but we can significantly mitigate this. Every single death is a tragedy, particularly every preventable death is absolutely a tragedy. But we went to war over 3,000 deaths from the World Trade Center. This nation would not tolerate and find – from a humanistic perspective, a million people dying in a year from any disease. I don’t care what it is. And when we know we can do something about this, regardless of the fact we don’t have a vaccine, regardless of the fact that we don’t have antiviral agents, if we had a million people die from a disease outbreak, that would be a failure of governance. That would be, I think, a failure of society. And we, you know, we’ve been planning. We’ve known a bad pandemic of some kind of some disease was coming. We didn’t know when it was coming. We’ve had several near-misses. But we’ve been talking about this for 30 or 40 years.

And while we’ve done a lot of preparedness on it, we’ve not really done it with any seriousness, even after SARS, which was a near-miss, and Ebola, which was really a near-miss. That’s above that. If it ever aerosolized, we’d have a very different scenario than the one you’re seeing right now. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t aerosolize. And you just understand that, yeah, we’re shutting down our society because that’s the only tool we have in the toolbox, pending a vaccine or an antiviral agent. Once we get, you know, antiviral agents and a vaccine, then we would manage this very differently. And by the way, this is not the last pandemic that our – humans are going to see. We’re going to see something like this again. Again, let’s hope it’s not for another hundred-plus years, but we will see this again. And we need to get it right.

[01:10:40]

RICK WEISS: Thank you very much. We are out of time. I want to thank our panelists so much for a very helpful and insightful discussion. I want to thank all the reporters on this briefing for your commitment to accuracy, your attention – not just to getting the facts right but, as Caroline mentioned, getting the tone right. The responsibility that you all are shouldering at this time in history, I think, can hardly be overstated. So your work is so important. Let’s make sure we get it right. Thanks so much for tuning in. Check out SciLine’s website for any help we can provide you. Follow us at @RealSciLine. And, please, as you log off today, you will get a prompt for a short survey. It’s so helpful to us if you would just take one minute and fill out that survey so we can figure out and stay on top of how we can help you best going forward. Thanks to all the reporters on this story. Thanks to our panelists. And we’ll see you next time.


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Dr. Georges Benjamin

American Public Health Association

Georges C. Benjamin, M.D., is a well-known health policy leader, practitioner and administrator. He currently serves as the executive director of the American Public Health Association, the nation’s oldest and largest organization of public health professionals. He is also a former secretary of health for the state of Maryland. Dr. Benjamin is a graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois College of Medicine. He is board-certified in internal medicine, a master of the American College of Physicians, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a fellow emeritus of the American College of Emergency Physicians, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He serves on several nonprofit boards such as Research!America, the Truth Initiative and, the Reagan-Udall Foundation. He is also a member of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, a council that advises the president on how best to assure the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

Caroline Chen

ProPublica

Caroline Chen covers health care for ProPublica. Previously, she was at Bloomberg News, where she wrote about Valeant Pharmaceutical’s use of a mail-order pharmacy to boost reimbursements for its drugs, the tactics used by a rare disease drugmaker to scare patients into staying on therapy, and the plight of medically complex babies who get stranded in hospitals because of a lack of home-care nurses. She received her master’s degree from the Stabile Program in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she was awarded a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Laura Helmuth

Scientific American

Laura Helmuth is the editor in chief of Scientific American. She has been an editor for The Washington Post, National Geographic, Slate, Smithsonian, and Science magazines. She is a member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s standing committee on the science of science communication, and she serves on the advisory boards of SciLine, High Country News, Spectrum magazine and 500 Women Scientists. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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