Data gaps, social media and pre-published studies: The new era of pandemic reporting

Some of Canada's most skilled health reporters find themselves in new territory when it comes to covering COVID-19

Maureen Taylor in wearing PPE while working as a physician's assistant at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto
Maureen Taylor has seen both sides of pandemic response, as a journalist and as a physician's assistant. Taylor poses in her PPE during her shift at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.  

Maureen Taylor was a leading health journalist during the SARS pandemic. Now, in the era of COVID-19, she’s working on a different front line as a Physician’s Assistant in Infectious Diseases at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.

“It’s just amazing to me to the difference that 17 years has made,” Taylor said. “No one waits for the evening news to find out what’s going on with COVID.”

Although Taylor no longer works as a journalist, she said what sets the novel coronavirus apart from other pandemics is not its spread or mortality rate, it’s the reaction it has generated from the public due to the impact of social media. Some of Canada’s most experienced journalists find themselves in unprecedented territory when it comes to this new era in health reporting.

“I compare [coronavirus] to epidemics 10 or 20 years ago, and we used to have one big story a day that kind of summarized what’s happened,” said André Picard, a health columnist at The Globe and Mail, in a Zoom interview in mid-June. Picard started covering the biggest pandemic in history, AIDS, in the early 1980s and has watched journalism evolve since then.

A vital part of a journalist’s job is to report accurate information. Not only have Twitter and other social media platforms accelerated the news cycle, but the evolving science around COVID-19 is also challenging to keep up with. Health reporters believe that the changes in journalism happened before the pandemic, but COVID-19 made these shifts more obvious.

St. Philips works in her home office during COVID-19. She says that what makes this pandemic unique from other infectious diseases she’s covered is it is more than a health story – it’s a political and economic story, too.

Elizabeth St. Philip, a senior producer in the Medical Unit at CTV National News, notices that fewer stories are being reported with peer-reviewed science.

“It used to be in the past, we would do a lot of our medical stories based on peer-reviewed journals. And now because the science happens so quickly, sometimes scientists and researchers put their material out before it’s peer-reviewed,” said St. Philip on a recent phone interview with The Toronto Observer along with colleague, Avis Favaro.

COVID-19 has revealed data gaps and made it harder to publish stories with facts from reputable sources. As Favaro points out, the rate that scientific literature is being released is among the fastest the world has ever seen. Now, people writing health stories are relying on mostly pre-published studies.

This discrepancy has made journalists need to be extra careful of the statistics they are publishing by checking their sources thoroughly and building relationships with medical professionals to gain clarity on complicated issues.

Not only is the science ever evolving, but some data isn’t being collected at all. Therefore, relying on data won’t always give people the full story. 

“Data becomes really important, and things like when we start discussing race, you know, a big failure here is we don’t have race-based data,” mentioned Picard.

He noted that the positive side of the information gaps in public health data is allowing other people to scrape the data themselves and build databases external to traditional sources.

With rapidly moving social media feeds and advancing scientific studies, health journalists are under pressure to report facts about a virus that the world has never seen. What makes their job even more complicated is that question periods with many politicians are now by phone, making it harder to ask follow-up questions.

“There’s really not those accountability interviews that we used to be able to do during SARS because there’s no access in person for the journalists to the people,” Taylor said.

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Posted: Jul 6 2020 4:20 pm
Filed under: Features Living Room Newsroom