Sabriya Rice, the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, explains why it's so important for student journalists to understand medical terms. “If you can’t fully explain the term," Rice says, "you can’t explain it to your audience." (photo: Sarah E. Freeman, February 2020)
Sabriya Rice assesses journalism amid the Covid-19 pandemic
Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair for Health and Medical Journalism, has worked for some of the nations’ foremost authorities in medical journalism. She uses her experience now to train journalists covering medical events. We asked Rice for her thoughts on coverage surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
How do you think journalism on COVID-19 compares to previous virus outbreaks?
Rice: “Over the course of my reporting career, I covered various disease outbreaks and concerning public health threats, including the Swine flu for CNN, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola for Modern Healthcare, and Zika for The Dallas Morning News. However, one of the major differences I have noticed this time around has been the wall-to-wall coverage of the novel coronavirus, and how COVID-19 has affected nearly every journalism beat.
“I like to follow the top stories across a variety of beats— including politics, entertainment, sports, climate, and the financial markets. So I spend about an hour every morning reading, watching, or listening to stories on my phone’s News App. As a professor of health journalism, I also tend to look for examples to share with students of how reporters on those beats are sometimes tasked with covering health care stories.
“In late February, I took a screengrab because every top story across every beat was related to the coronavirus. That was an intense moment for me, and a sign that this would be different from any outbreak I covered in the past.”
Four months into the pandemic, what lessons have been learned on covering a global medical event?
Rice: “The COVID-19 pandemic has proven why health journalism is an important area of specialty, and why it is important for our government to create open channels of communication that make both data and subject matter experts available in a timely fashion.
“In breaking news situations, reporters are scrambling to get the facts and share the latest, most accurate information. However, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19, there is the potential to share misinformation, misuse anecdotes, and to report on unvetted research. Those are some pitfalls that trained health journalists are more likely to avoid, though it remains a struggle.
“UGA’s health and medical journalism program prepares the next generation of journalists on how to critically approach healthcare and science stories, so they can report accurately without confusing the public. I’m a board member of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), a nonprofit whose workshops and training programs that help elevate the quality of health journalism have definitely been in high demand.
“What we want to avoid is exactly what is depicted in one of my favorite parodies about the confusing messages communicated during the heart of COVID-19 lockdowns. The parody, from country singer Adley Stump, called “What We Should All Be Doing Right Now” looks at how messages can be confusing when poorly communicated during a press conference. It clearly resonated, as the video has been viewed nearly four million times since it posted in April.
“And it speaks to something that AHCJ’s Right To Know Committee has been pressing for, which is access to information and experts from our top government health officials. It’s clear that there needs to be better working relationships between journalists and the government.”
With much conflicting information, how do you best determine what information is valid in regard to COVID-19?
Rice: “As journalism graduate student, Lexie Little, pointed out in a post last year following UGA’s State of the Public’s Health Conference, health misinformation spreads quickly… and even more concerning is that, once it’s out there, it’s hard to convince people that the erroneous information they heard about is not actually true.
“The best thing is not to put it out there in the first place. As journalists, we must avoid reprinting press releases that can be riddled with spin. We’ve seen a lot of this recently, with pharmaceutical companies releasing data on potential vaccines that have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals, with hospitals sharing anecdotal evidence about treatments and cures and with individual scientists suggesting they have identified new strains and mutations of the coronavirus.
“We all need to apply a healthy bit of skepticism as consumers of information. As a reporter, one of the first things I look for in a story is an explanation of where the data came from. If the data is from a study, I expect the story to explain at least three things: 1) who funded the research — to understand if there could be a conflict of interest; 2) how many patients were included— to understand the potential scope and; 3) whether the information was published in a credible medical journal—which suggests that more than just the study’s researchers are on board with the findings.”
In your opinion, what is next for this pandemic/story?
Rice: “Before we dramatically shifted to coverage of COVID-19, all eyes were on the 2020 presidential candidates and how they planned to address the persistent challenges of health insurance coverage and health care access in the United States. Several policies were up for debate, including the potential introduction of subsidies for immigrants, expanding Medicaid in states that had not yet done so and the introduction of public options.
“If anything, this pandemic has highlighted the demand for further discussions.. COVID-19 put a spotlight, in real-time, on the gaping health care disparities faced by people of color and low-income communities, which put them at higher risk of death from the virus, and the huge divide in resources and access to care that exists between rural and urban areas. I anticipate, there will be many stories digging deeper into the existing policies in each state, with reporters investigating potential solutions that had been tabled and emerging ideas prompted by the pandemic response.
“Long term, I also anticipate more deep dives into the broader impact of coronavirus on a variety of health indicators. These may include mental health, as individuals coped with life in isolation; food insecurity, as farms and factories shut down and adjusted prices; and enrollment in Medicaid, as millions lost their jobs, and therefore, their employer-based health insurance. The increase in uninsured, paired with the fear of contracting COVID-19, led many to report skipping a medical appointment, and so reporters will be keeping an eye on whether we see an uptick in health problems not associated with coronavirus.”
Some of Grady College’s Health and Medical Journalism students have written about COVID-19 for Georgia Health News. You can read their work here:
Rice and her fellow Knight Chairs from higher education institutions across the country recently released a letter addressing violence against journalists during public protests. You can read that letter here.