UPDATE: Here is a fourth episode of my series of interviews with the experts of COVID.
I spoke with the amazing Dr. Emma Hodcroft, a phylogeneticist (which she will explain) at the University of Basel, who co-developed the Nextstrain project, a herculean effort to track, so far, 5,000 strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it travels across the world. We talked about lessons from that project; about good and bad journalism about the pandemic; about how journalists should responsibly report on debate and discussion in the medical community that occurs in preprint papers and Twitter; about about her own role in this extraordinary event. She is an excellent explainer on social media, and here:
EARLIER EPISODES: I have been interviewing experts in COVID-19 to give journalists advice about how to cover the crisis.
Dr. Gonsalves dissects what was wrong with a contrarian Times op-ed arguing that the cure might be worse than the disease — something we’ve heard since from Trump and company. The Times’ mistake was in giving space to a contrarian rather than an expert, succumbing to our professional weakness for false balance and controversy, even if manufactured. We discuss the challenges of journalists covering modeling and the politicization of research. Importantly, he gives journalists advice about what they should be covering: not only the medical scandal of the century in the Trump administration’s failures in this epidemic, but also what will come next. He says much of the work to come will fall on local journalists (at a time when local journalism is suffering and years past the departure of most local science reporters).
Episode 2: Infectious diseases expert and ebola veteran Dr. Krutika Kuppalli
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli is an expert in infectious diseases with experience in HIV and Ebola. She is vice chair of the Global Health Committee at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a Biosecurity Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. She supervised treatment at an Ebola unit in Sierra Leone in the 2014 outbreak and has also worked in Ethiopia, India, Uganda, and Haiti.
I asked her advice on how to cover the transmission of the virus; what to look for and when to look for it in news about the development of therapeutics and vaccines; and — importantly — how bring attention to what I believe is the great uncovered story of this crisis: inequality and its impact on poor and vulnerable communities in the U.S. and worldwide. Dr. Kuppalli emphasized both her concern for the impact the pandemic will have on poor nations — and what we can learn from them, considering that nations like Sierra Leone faced Ebola without the money we in America can throw at problems. We also spoke about the psychological toll treating the disease has to be having on our health care workers. Finally, she urges reporters, editors, and bookers to check the credentials of the sources you call to make sure they are experts with experience, not people from other fields with opinions. Now more than ever, expertise matters. We must amplify it.
Episode 3: Columbia virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen
Now I interview a virologist, Dr. Angela Rasmussen of Columbia’s School of Public Health, to get her help for journalists covering the COVID-19 crisis. She and I talk about what media are doing right and wrong; about the need for journalists — reporters, editors, bookers — to find the appropriate, relevant, credentialed experts and to take advantage of the tremendous diversity among them; about how she works in this new age of open information and conversation among scientists and between scientists and the public; and, yes, masks. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you — especially journalists — find it useful.
I didn’t realize how affected I have been by the trauma of COVID-19 until today, when the death toll in America passed that of 9/11, when the cumulative stress of seeing medical workers suffer and scientists wonder and politicians bungle piled too high, when I found myself snapping for no good reason, when the pain of uncertainty returned.
On 9/11, I was at the World Trade Center, feeling the heat of the jets’ impact, seeing lives lost, overcome by the debris of the towers’ fall, barely surviving — because I didn’t step two feet this way or that — and witnessing my mortality in the moment, the result of my bad decision to stay and report … for what? for a story.
Now that moment of mortality is every day, fearing the wrong moment in a grocery story or touching a surface or rubbing a nose will do any of us in, jeopardizing ourselves, our families, our communities. It is 9/11 in slow-motion, repeated every day for everyone: a morning that will last a year or two; evil groundhog day.
One of my last trips into Manhattan before the shutdown was to Bellevue Hospital, to the World Trade Center Health Program, where I finally went after many years of denial to have them prod my body and memory. I thought it would be therapeutic. It was more bureaucratic, to certify me for treatment that doesn’t really exist for my two cancers (both lite: prostate and thyroid, each on the List), for my heart condition (atrial fibrillation, not on the List), for respiratory issues (sleep apnea; I’ll get a machine), and — here was my surprise — for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Me? I’m fine. Just fine. I have been for 19 years, not just coping but always cognizant of my privilege, having survived the day and prospered since, lucky to have my family and home and work.
And then, 19 years later, comes COVID-19 (as if numbers were self-aware of their irony) to remind me again of my fragility, my mortality.
I am still fortunate and know that well. I live out in the country with much social distance around me. I have a wonderful family and thanks to my wife am safe at home. I have a rewarding job working with dedicated deans and teachers who want nothing more than to help our students not just weather this crisis but learn from it and become wiser and more resilient for it. Thanks to the internet, I can keep my job and income and my connection with the world. I am privileged still.
I look at the numbers on charts, deaths and death rates daily, and think we are not doing a good job of seeing the humanity in them. The so-called president acts as if losing 100,000 or 200,000 people is a job well-done and deserving of credit. His flags are not at half-staff; never. The news is just beginning to fill with the names of the lost, the stories of their lives buried under slopes on charts. So many of the first we lose are selfless medical workers, gone for no reason, gone because of our feckless government’s denials. God knows how the doctors and nurses do this, facing the mortality of so many, including themselves, every moment. God bless them.
I am not them. We do not have to be among them. We do not have to be if we pay attention and stay inside and don’t breathe the wrong air and touch the wrong thing and scratch our eyes at the wrong moment and hang on until science — blessed science — gives us a vaccine. I bury myself in science. That is where I find hope.
But we are vulnerable. We always are, always have been, always will be. It’s just that most of the time, we manage to ignore that fact.
Especially us New Yorkers. Our city is so strong: The center of the fucking universe, as I delight in telling students and visitors, a fortress of spirit and will, intelligence and effort. But here it is again, under attack, brought down and brought silent this time by a mere virus for which we — the nation — were criminally unprepared.
And so my anger does me in. I cannot bear watching him on television every fucking night, that tower of ego and unself-aware fragility exploiting the vulnerability and suffering and his citizens and spewing falsity and hate and ignorance to his cult. That is too much to bear. I am ashamed of my own life’s field, media, for giving him this platform, for not calling his lies until they are spread like a virus across the land, for failing to diagnose the disease that he is. This depresses me.
But writing this is its own form of self-indulgence, I must confess. I haven’t shared emotions like this since some long-gone anniversary of 9/11. For I was healing or healed, I thought. But now I see my weakness again. The emotions are bare.
I told the psychiatrist at Bellevue (a phrase I use with no irony) that I saw few lasting effects of 9/11 on my psyche. I became phobic about bridges and there are many I will not cross. I find my emotions can well up at the most idiotic moments, when a manipulative twist in a TV show or even a goddamned commercial can peel me back and reveal my gooey center. But all that’s not so hard to control. I just find the nearest tunnel or a shorter bridge and shake my head to wave off the storytellers’ manipulation of my heart.
Yet today that is harder. The emotions are rising again. I wouldn’t name them fear. I’d name them apprehension and worry and anger and stress and empathy for the numberless and nameless who go before us, too soon.
So there. Nineteen years ago, when I started blogging after that day, I found it helpful to share so I could connect with others and learn I was far from alone. That act itself — linking with people here, online — changed my perspective of my career, of journalism, of media, of society. It taught me that properly considered my life and profession should not have been about writing stories but about listening and conversing; that is what I believe now. That gave me a new career as a teacher.
Now I don’t tell my story so much as I confess my weakness in case someone reading this feels the same: vulnerable but fortunate, worried but wishing, just uncertain yet not alone.
This post has been translated into Spanish here and Italian here.
In this novel crisis, we in media and online need to shift much of our attention away from trying to eradicate disinformation (and how’s that going?) to spend more of our time and resources once again finding and amplifying good information — authoritative information from experts.
That is why I am maintaining and immersing myself in my COVID Twitter list of 500 epidemiologists, virologists, physicians, researchers, NGOs, and selected specialist journalists. I have been taking in their conversations with each other and the public, learning every hour, privileged to be able to ask questions, witnessing science in action; it’s that and only that that gives me hope. Through those experts I get a better view of our new reality versus any bro’s contrarian thumbsucking in blog posts or New York Times columns or in mindless TV location shots in front of poke bars that — guess what? — have no business. More on all that in a minute.
Of course, I’m not suggesting an end to fact-checking and fighting disinformation. First Draft, Storyful, fact-checkers worldwide, and news organizations aplenty have that well in hand, or as well as anyone can these days. But the flavor of disinformation has changed; the target has shifted; the enemy is different. As First Draft’s founder and my leader in all such things, Dr. Claire Wardle, said in a video conference with journalists the other day, much disinformation these days comes not from malicious actors but from the well-meaning ignorant. Ignorance is our foe.
That is why we need the experts. That is why we need to put our effort behind finding them, listening to them, learning from them, and amplifying what they have to say. That is media’s job № 1.
Cable TV news is doing a decent job, I think, of getting experts on air to answer questions — authorities such as Dr. Caitlin Rivers, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security; Dr. Peter Hotez, professor at Baylor; Dr. Ashish Jha of Harvard; Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel of Penn; Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness; Andy Slavitt, former Obama ACA head. My primary complaint is that, TV being TV, they fill too much time with meaningless, repetitive location shots, coming back to an empty deli or Times Square a dozen times in a day or standing in front of the soon-to-be mass hospital at Javits Center where there’s no reporting to be done. Stop.
I want to see that time filled instead with more voices of science. I want to see TV do what it does best: make stars, stars of experts, scientists, doctors — the people we should trust and listen to, not pontificators or certain politicians at podiums. I can recommend many more scientists from my list. Here are some examples:
Devi Sridhar, chair of global health at the University of Edinburgh, has been a brilliant and outspoken critic of UK policy who can explain anything in the crisis with crystal clarity. Watch her from two years ago predicting precisely predict what we are now enduring:
Here is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a lead researcher on the NIH effort to create a vaccine and an excellent explainer on Twitter.
Also from the UK (which I recommend because we need international perspectives) here is scientist Mike Galsworthy explaining with concise clarity and a simple notebook why Boris Johnson’s herd immunity strategy was dead wrong.
And more experts with amazing credentials and a talent for explanation:
Yale’s Dr. Gregg Gonsalves is fantastic on Twitter — blunt and informative (you’ll hear more from him in a moment);
Lisa Jarvis (no relation), a reporter at Chemical and Engineering News;
Dr. Rob Davidson is the frontline ER physician who challenged Vice-President Pence and who gives us messages, exhausted, after his shifts.
They are all sharing directly with us on Twitter; what a privilege to be able to read them. That is but a small sample of the 500 experts I follow. You could follow each of them or better yet subscribe to my list (I get nothing out of it but the knowledge that you’ll help spread good information). Twitter, to its credit, decided they wanted to expedite verification (that is, the anointing of checkmarks) of these experts and so they came to me for help and I’ve been trying to guide some of them through the process, still ongoing.
One caution: What passes in tweet-length conversation in the midst of a constantly changing situation is science in progress. That is to say, there are no answers and conclusions, but there is information and data, and there are important questions. And that would be OK for most people. But Trump. I retweeted a report of very incomplete information about one doctor’s experience giving a few patients a malaria drug and antibiotic — worth looking at, the doctors in my feed said; no more. Then Trump trumpeted this as practically a cure, causing doctors to scream and a run on the medicine. I was properly castigated by someone on Twitter for tweeting such a small study and he was right to the extent that I should have added the context that it was small and nowhere near conclusive. You might wish for the days of gatekeepers — reporters — to add that context, but we’re leaving that era. I welcome hearing so much information directly from so many experts and practitioners. In this age of more open information, the public will have to learn to deal with incomplete data. You might call what’s needed media literacy, except media often do an idiotic job of reporting the progress of science (“Wine will kill us!” “Wine will save us!”). I call the solution simply education.
Now let us compare and contrast how certain media have dealt with — that is, spread or ignored — expertise. Some media have been wonderful. The Atlantic immediately put its excellent COVID coverage — for example this well-documented policy proposal from two renowned doctors and an ongoing project tracking how many Americans have the disease — outside its paywall. Some followed the example, making COVID coverage free; some haven’t. For God’s sake, if there were ever a moment when journalists should see reporting as a public good, if there were ever a moment when we should do everything we can to eradicate ignorance so we help eradicate this threat, this is it! Before you start poor-mouthing about tough times — which we all now share — know that it was The Atlantic’s decision to go outside its paywall that motivated me to subscribe. Sometimes doing good is its own reward; sometimes, there’s a bonus.
I also want to single out Medium for praise. As a platform, it does not choose what is posted there. Among the God-knows-how-many posts that went up recently was an absolutely awful festival in willful ignorance and hubris from a so-called growth hacker who thought he could do better with epidemiological data than untold experts around the world. To quote:
I’m quite experienced at understanding virality, how things grow, and data. In my vocation, I’m most known for popularizing the “growth hacking movement” in Silicon Valley that specializes in driving rapid and viral adoption of technology products. Data is data. Our focus here isn’t treatments but numbers. You don’t need a special degree to understand what the data says and doesn’t say. Numbers are universal.
Scores of experts in my Twitter list went properly berserk over his conclusions, — a biology professor at the University of Washington, Dr. Carl Bergstrom, decrying every paragraph. It spread for a time via Fox News fools and others. (I could insert a rant here about Fox News and Rupert Murdoch killing people and democracy, but let’s just stipulate that for the time being.)
But then Medium took the piece down.
UPDATE: Medium released this statement about the takedown:
“We’re giving careful scrutiny to coronavirus-related content on Medium to help stem misinformation that could be detrimental to public safety. The post was removed based on its violation of our Rules, specifically the risk analysis framework we use for ‘Controversial, Suspect, and Extreme Content.’ We’ve clarified these rules to address more specific concerns around the evolving public health crisis. We’ve also taken steps to point readers to credible, fact-checked pieces on Medium and elsewhere on the web, and to remind readers that Medium is an open platform where anyone can write. We’re assessing the situation daily and making adjustments as necessary.”
Bravo for Medium. Yes, I wish Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al would do likewise. The differences are clear: Medium is a platform for content while social media provide platforms for conversation; social media carries exponentially more items to monitor. Facebook says, and I agree, that it would make a bad arbiter of truth. Fine. But I do want to see especially Facebook grow a spine and decide what does and does not fit in the community it has built. Denying informed science and endangering lives belongs in no community. Besides tamping down the bad, I also want to see Facebook, like Twitter, do everything possible to amplify science and sense.
Yes, there are idiots out there and idiots who believe idiots and who don’t want to believe science. But we will go mad trying to save them all from their ignorance; we are too busy to focus on them. I say we must concentrate now on those willing, wishing, and needing to learn, which I firmly believe is most of us. We do that by helping them pay attention to science and facts and helping them ignore the idiots.
You’d think that concentrating on the evidence produced by experts would be easy at a publication still controlled by editors, as opposed to a technology platform. But I cannot understand why The New York Times is publishing some of what it has published lately, fully in its control.
Take, for example, this op-ed by David Katz, which like the post Medium took down takes a contrarian position that this pandemic really isn’t as bad as it seems, implying we are overreacting. Once again, countless experts in my Twitter list went nuts over this. They were particularly amazed that The Times chose to give over its precious space and its invaluable distribution and imprimatur not to an epidemiologist or a virologist but to someone who is well-known for defending sugar and acting as a California walnut ambassador and creating a discredited nutrition rating system (all of which The Times could have found, as I did, in a simple Google search). Could The Times have found no one more knowledgeable about the disease? I could suggest 500 people. Here Yale’s Dr. Gregg Gonsalves takes it apart:
So right. In choosing that author and that op-ed and passing on others who know so much more, The Times is — I’ll repeat Gonsalves’ words —exercising “denigration of expertise, when we need it most, prizing generalist knowledge when specifics matter.”
And it gets worse with — surprise, surprise — Bret Stephens, who took the same contrarian path, questioning the experts and their “models” — yes, he put “models” in scare quotes. He based his arguments in great measure on a piece by John P.A. Ioannidis — which I had already seen the expert doctors in my Twitter list excoriate. Here is a very polite takedown of Ioannidis’ theories by Harvard’s Dr. Marc Lipsitch, who concludes: “Waiting and hoping for a miracle as health systems are overrun by Covid-19 is not an option. For the short term there is no choice but to use the time we are buying with social distancing to mobilize a massive political, economic, and societal effort to find new ways to cope with this virus.”
And then there is Tom Friedman’s latest column, in which he echoes the challenges of the contrarians: “Is this cure — even for a short while — worse than the disease?’’ He all but gives the back of his hand to the epidemiologists who are informing policy, calling what they offer — with scare quotes — “group think.” Good Lord. Theirs is not the opinion of a goddamned coffee klatch. It’s science, based on data and experience — which is more than any columnist has. Friedman hides behind the classic excuse of the journalist: “I am not a medical expert. I’m just a reporter.” Translated: We’re supposed to ask dumb questions — just questions — on behalf of the dumb public. No! Our job is to go to the experts to help make the public smarter. Amazingly, Friedman goes on to favorably quote both Katz and Ioannidis from The New York Times. Talk about an echo chamber! Talk about “group think”!
Gonsalves tweeted again, about this Times hat trick, and I must quote it all:
Expertise. We will live or die by expertise: by science, by evidence, by experience, by knowledge, by data. Hot takes will kill us, whether they are Donald Trump’s (‘I have a good feeling about the drug’) or a tech bro’s (‘I know data’) or New York Times’ columnists’ with their scare quotes (‘are “group think” and “models” good? we’re just asking’).
In journalism, we are never experts. It is our job to find experts and give them voice for the public, adding questions and context where helpful. But thank goodness, I don’t need the journalists to stand in the way. I can go straight to 500 amazing, brave, brilliant, experienced, knowledgeable, dedicated, and caring experts thanks to the internet.