Now, here we are in 2020, and Sun, Yong and a phalanx of health reporters in newsrooms across the globe are covering the still-unfolding coronavirus pandemic. Even entertainment and sports reporters, whose coverage areas have all but disappeared, are on the story.
“The pandemic truly is one of the biggest stories — if not the biggest story — of our time, and I think it demands our full attention right now,” Yong said. “Science, health and technology reporters are at the core of that. We are here to do our own stories and support our colleagues with expertise or knowledge when needed.”
Coronavirus “became the all-consuming thing,” Lee said. “It’s weird to be in competition with like every news reporter in the world. It’s also really amazing to see what work they’re generating.”
Richard Bilton, a BBC journalist who works on the investigative documentary series Panorama, said he and his team have shifted their focus solely to the coronavirus.
“Any other investigation right now doesn’t matter,” Bilton said.
Max Filby, health reporter for the Gannett-owned newspaper The Columbus Dispatch, said he spent his first two weeks covering coronavirus from the Ohio Statehouse, where he began seeing officials’ changing views on the seriousness of the problem.
“The first press conference was in a really cramped room with 30 to 40 people. I couldn’t easily socially distance in that room,” Filby said. “Over time we moved to a bigger room. Then we were in multiple rooms and the governor’s in a different room and we have to ask him questions by camera.”
When he’s not covering press conferences, he works from home. “My phone is basically the front line,” he continued.
Indeed, the bulk of reporting throughout the industry takes place from journalists’ homes. Health reporter Emily Woodruff of The Advocate in New Orleans said it has been difficult not being able to talk in person about sensitive topics.
“I’m talking to someone who had to FaceTime their parent and that was the last time they talked with them,” Woodruff said. “Normally, I would try to go to that person’s house and meet with them, and now it’s just a phone call.”
“You can’t communicate, as easily, empathy just because your face is covered,” Shuster said. “There’s this extra tension in the room.”
Los Angeles Times health reporter Soumya Karlamangla said she has noticed that sources are eager to talk to her about the pandemic, which is a welcome change from when she previously reported on mass shootings and wildfires, when people seemed to have a harder time opening up.
“Literally everyone wants to talk to us all the time because they want to prevent something bad from happening,” Karlamangla said. “I’m writing about the fact that the nurses don’t have enough masks. That’s definitely helping people and a unique position as a journalist that I’ve never been in before.”
“So much bigger than a health care story”
“I look back on the end of February thinking, ‘Oh my god I wasn’t screaming loud enough, I wasn’t yelling loud enough,'” Saker said. “This was the tidal wave, avalanche, earthquake in our society, and it’s happening on this beat.”
Other health reporters have been steadily covering the developments of coronavirus since reports emerged in early January. Sun, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is based in DC and was once the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, said the Post’s bureau there initially took the lead. But as the number of cases swelled, she turned her full attention to the story.
“As the virus spread around the world, more people were getting involved,” Sun said. “We focused on being more thematic, what are we learning about the fatality, infectiousness, preparedness.”
“There are a lot of stories that are competitive and just so many things we could be covering,” Kliff said. “There’s been a lot of value in teaming up with other reporters just to turn stories around.”
Drew Armstrong, US health team leader at Bloomberg News, said every week his newsroom’s leadership is reevaluating how they are organized.
“We tear up the playbook,” Armstrong said. “We have to be flexible so we stay ahead of this, because it’s so much bigger than a health care story at this point.”