How ABC Science is navigating the challenges of reporting on the coronavirus pandemic and one tough critic – ABC News


Health reporter Tegan Taylor may be one of the co-hosts of the ABC’s popular Coronacast podcast, but that doesn’t mean everyone is a fan of her work.

While she was home schooling her kids earlier this year, she got the following review in her six-year-old daughter’s Year 1 journal:

My mum dose croanacast.

We have to stay cwieyet for half an hour.

It is boring.

“I’m clearly raising a tough critic,” Taylor says.

Young girl with headphones on talking into microphone in front of a computer.
Recording the Coronacast podcast has been a challenge for co-host Tegan Taylor when her daughter has been home schooled.(ABC Health: Tegan Taylor)

ABC Science’s online team of specialist science, health and technology reporters have been reporting on the coronavirus pandemic since the virus emerged.

We published our first explainer on coronavirus on January 20 and, as the virus has spread around the world, many members of the team have been reporting on little else for the past few months.

“I remember in January I was still so focused on the health impacts of the bushfires that when this ‘mysterious viral pneumonia outbreak’ popped up in China, I didn’t think too much about it,” health reporter Olivia Willis says.

“That obviously changed pretty quickly, and since mid-February I’ve been covering nothing but COVID-19.”

From the start, we’ve been working closely with our colleagues in News to ensure the coronavirus explainers and in-depth health features we’ve been writing reach as big an audience as possible, and complement the rest of the ABC’s coronavirus coverage.

We’ve also been helping to check stories written by general reporters, who might not be as immersed in the intricacies of health reporting as we are.

“Good science takes time, but the audience has been desperate for information and answers to their questions — right now.

“At times we’ve had to break our own rules, such as reporting on preprint data — normally we only report on data once it’s been published in academic journals (more about that later) — but we’ve always tried to be honest with the audience and explain what we do and don’t know.”

The stories we’ve been writing have been greatly informed by you: the topics you’ve been searching for online and the many thousands of questions you’ve been asking us to investigate.

Screen shot of Willis and Kruszelnicki on screen with small box showing listener asking questions.
As well as filing online, health reporter Olivia Willis has been helping Dr Karl answer triple j listeners’ coronavirus questions on air.(ABC Health: Olivia Willis)

In the beginning, we were writing a lot of fast turn-around explainers, such as how COVID-19 is different from the flu or how long coronavirus lasts on different surfaces.

As case numbers have, thankfully, fallen around Australia, that’s evolved into deeper dives on topics like what issues you need to be aware of if you decide to wear a face mask, or who the frontrunners are in the coronavirus vaccine race.

The challenges of covering an emerging public health emergency

ABC Science has always been a geographically dispersed team, with reporters working from the ABC’s offices in Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

So we’re perhaps more used to working remotely than most, although now that we’re all working from home our regular Zoom editorial meetings have seen more than one cameo appearance from partners, pets and progeny.

Compilation of three photos showing two dogs and a cat.
Critical members of ABC Science’s WFH team: Banjo, Leo and Scout.(ABC Science)

But the real challenges in covering this pandemic have come from the subject matter itself.

As a virus new to humans there’s little we know about this coronavirus and, despite the many active research projects underway, scientific progress is gradual.

Often the only answer an expert can give us to a question we’ve asked is “we don’t know yet” and that’s frustrating for both us and them.

But we believe it’s important we also give you these insights into the scientific process, so when you’re reading one of our stories you know what we know from the latest research, what an expert is speculating on within their area of expertise and what we just don’t know yet.

A dying cell (greenish-brown) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample.
A dying cell (greenish-brown) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample.(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH)

Understanding how the virus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, works is a complex and painstaking process, as can be seen in our still limited understanding of how immunity from the virus occurs.

Which is not to say the medical and broader scientific community have been resting on their laurels.

The number of papers published on COVID-19 has already surpassed 25,000, according to LitCovid, a curated hub of all the scientific literature on the virus, and I suspect a website bookmarked by many health and science reporters around the globe.

That also means the pace of reporting the latest research has been fast and furious.

While there are at least 200 different drugs being trialled as treatments, just a handful have hogged the headlines.

Keeping on top of the latest evidence — and spin (hello hydroxychloroquine) — is challenging even for medical researchers.

With scientists scrambling for a solution, much of the early information in the pandemic was based on incomplete science, and many results have been hastily uploaded to preprint servers like medRxiV and bioRxiv.

These servers help scientists quickly collaborate, but the studies have not been peer-reviewed and published in a journal.

Multiple syringes organized in a pattern over orange background.
Finding a coronavirus vaccine will be difficult as most vaccines that reach clinical trials don’t make it to market.(Getty Images: Westend61)

In many cases we’ve chosen not to report on preprint research as the findings are very preliminary and have not yet been vetted by experts.

In the rare cases where we have, we’ve made sure to let you know the research isn’t yet peer-reviewed.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything that does get published in a journal is above reproach, as we’ve seen with some recent high-profile retractions of papers, but peer review is still the best system we have.

In an interview with science journalist Genelle Weule on the topic of treatments, seasoned science blogger and industry insider Derek Lowe summed it up:

And as our knowledge of this coronavirus deepens, it’s natural that our understanding of the virus will also change as we accumulate more data.

That’s one of the key challenges of reporting on a situation that is constantly evolving.

With all of our coronavirus stories we’ve done what we always do, talk to independent experts who weren’t involved in the research to help us understand how this new work fits in with what we already know in this area, and to cast a critical eye over how it was done.

Independent experts also help provide crucial context to our stories, particularly in a situation like this where the Australian experience has been very different to what is happening overseas.

The virus is only part of the story

Unfortunately a global pandemic also brings with it a lot of health misinformation, which can put further strain on people already under stress.

Covering this topic has been a focus for technology reporter Ariel Bogle.

“That’s why we try to focus on the actors, motivations and strategies, as well as how it’s impacting the Australian community.”

Reporting on COVIDSafe has been a major focus of our technology coverage.

A mobile phone held in a person's left hand shows the homepage of a government health app.
Australian authorities say the COVIDSafe app will remain a key contact-tracing tool as economies reopen and potential outbreaks occur.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Ariel has also been reporting extensively on the Federal Government’s contact tracing app COVIDSafe, and her and Olivia’s initial analysis of the app’s potential effectiveness provoked extensive online discussion and was even quoted in Parliament by Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications and Cybersecurity Tim Watts.

“COVIDSafe is an unprecedented piece of technology and was sold as key to the Government’s lifting of lockdown,” Bogle says.

“It was important to ask hard questions — most of all, does it work?”

As well as reporting on the physical health effects of this coronavirus, Willis has written many articles about the impact of the pandemic on our mental health.

“It became clear early on that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 were going to be a really important part of the story,” she says.

“So many people were feeling understandably stressed, frightened and anxious, and we wanted to provide resources that could help people cope.”

Your go-to source for reliable health advice

We’ll continue to bring you the information you need to know about this pandemic, but we’re also looking for new ways to make smart health advice easier for you to access.

So on June 1, we launched the ABC Health Instagram account, @abchealth.

We’re using it to bust health myths and share practical health information with you, both now and once the pandemic is over.

“We’ll be looking at all aspects of health — so topics like exercise, mental health, diet, health misinformation, and everything in between,” ABC Science social media producer April Chan says.

“We’re also very excited to get our audience involved, so we’ll be asking for your questions and answering them along the way.”

So if you’ve got a health question, whether it’s about coronavirus or something else, send us a DM.





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