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Intense times require intense journalists

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by Stan Zoller, MJE

The COVID-19 pandemic that is gripping the country, let alone the world, has had this simple impact on journalists – intense times require intense journalism.

And that starts with all journalists and journalism educators.

We’re seeing unprecedented media coverage, and with it, the unprecedented need for journalists to get it right.

We’ve seen issues that have impacted students including school shootings and concussions in student athletes to name just a few. But not since Sept. 11 has there been something that has gripped the nation as a whole.

We’re seeing unprecedented media coverage, and with it, the unprecedented need for journalists to get it right. 

As a former medical writer, having written for the American Medical Association and several Midwest medical centers, I have found that health care reporting is not only fascinating, but challenging.

Those challenges have been accentuated by social media. As the late Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

With healthcare reporting, journalists can’t rely on a lot of half-dressed facts. 

In general, fundamental reporting requires multiple sources and verification of all sources no matter who or what they are. This is a no brainer.

When it comes to health care reporting the bar is raised big time. Journalists, but for the sake of this blog let’s focus on student journalists, need to agonize over their sources and the aforementioned verification.

Student journalists need to look long at hard at who their sources are but also act their level of expertise. School nurses are unsung heroes to be sure.  However, their scope of expertise, with all due respect, is limited. While they are a great place to start, they are not a great place to end.

If you are localizing a story on COVID-19, take a look at nearby hospitals and medical centers. Contact experts in infectious diseases, epidemiology and immunology to name a few. There are also medical associations and organizations that address these specialties. While it’s tempting to simply cite website posting, check for a “press room” where media materials may be available. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have information available for the media as does the American Medical Association (AMA).

During an unprecedented public health crisis, reports of vaccines and studies will be rampant. Special care is needed when checking online information. It’s imperative that journalists verify who, or what organization, is behind a study or vaccine development. The reality is this – it’s not unusual for pharmaceutical companies to fund research.  By using their studies, your medical reporting loses its independent sources. If you are citing university or medical school-based research, it’s a good practice to find out where they are getting funding.  Quite often funding comes from organizations like the National Institutes of Health or similar organizations.

While you need to check sources extra carefully, double check any medical terminology you may use as it can be tricky.  Often times, a quick phone call to a local hospital or medical center can clarify things.

Don’t forget obvious resources as well. The Student Press Law Center has an exemplary resource available at Covering the Coronavirus Pandemic.

While there will, no doubt, be a push by scholastic press associations to present awards for outstanding coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the magnitude of the outbreak and the rapidly changing glut of information requires that reporting goes beyond the usual and customary journalism practiced by student journalism. 

Verification, extreme fact checking and independence are paramount. Recognition will follow. 

In the meantime, the important thing is to follow Churchill’s advice – make sure your stories have their pants on.

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