Columbia Professor Claudia Dreifus hosted a talk by science journalist Laura Helmuth on journalism before, during, and after the pandemic.

Before the world struggled through the arduous experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Columbia University campus was utterly different. Masks were hardly anywhere to be found, JJ’s Place was open all night, and Claudia Dreifus’s class in the School of Professional Studies regularly hosted an event called Editor’s Night. For aspiring journalists, this was a chance to make connections and ask questions to those in their potential line of work. But in March 2020, the entire world shut down, and Editor’s Night was no exception. Only two and a half years later would it make its next in-person reappearance, on Thursday, October 27 in the World Room of Pulitzer Hall.

There may have only been one editor present that night, but her expertise was equal to that of many. Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief of the Scientific American and former Health and Science editor of The Washington Post talked about her work prior to and during the pandemic. In the first part of the event, Claudia Dreifus, a renowned journalist and interviewer herself, led the discussion and questions, with the field opening up to members of the audience in the second half. 

Laura Helmuth did not begin her career as a journalist. Her first pursuit was neuroscience, earning her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1997. But instead of continuing on the usual road to academia, she turned towards a future in journalism. She obtained a degree in science communication and worked at journals such as Science, Smithsonian Magazine, and Slate. Starting in 2016, she was appointed the Health, Science, and Environment editor for The Washington Post. With the Trump administration coming into power at the time, controversies involving the EPA, NIH, and climate change dominated the science media. Journalists wanted a chance to write about something different: articles that focused on scientific advancements and achievements. Their wish was granted… but not in the way they had hoped. The Post was one of the first US newspapers to receive comprehensive coverage from China, and the team there quickly realized the severity of the situation. According to Dr. Helmuth, the editors recognized COVID-19 as the “biggest news story” of the generation, and that the implications of the event “terrified” them.

So what could one media site do? As it turns out, quite a lot. The US administration in early 2020 responded to the onset of the pandemic with xenophobia, and misinformation about COVID-19 was rampant. In the beginning, the Post simply tried to avoid inflaming the situation—reporting only established facts and trying to debunk some of the most important rumors. Yet as the pandemic continued, conspiracies including the anti-vaccine movement began to grow, and Dr. Helmuth felt that she had a personal responsibility to stop its spread. In addition to her work as an editor, she published a tip sheet titled “Covering the Coronavirus Epidemic Effectively Without Spreading Misinformation.” This call to action included suggestions such as avoiding debunking fringe theories, acknowledging people’s fears and uncertainties, and using social media in an effective way. She also followed her own tips, continuing to publish extensive coverage of the pandemic.

In April 2020, Dr. Helmuth left the Post and became editor-in-chief of Scientific American, the nation’s premier science news journal. There, she continued her work regarding COVID-19 but also became more involved in the management of the journal and communications with researchers. In that role, she could more accurately see how the scientific community was responding to the pandemic. In her opinion, most of the community was addressing the issues excellently: sharing data, working tirelessly for results and expanding international collaboration. Of course, this was not true of everyone. Some people became “armchair epidemiologists,” providing advice about topics far out of their field of expertise. Despite the overall admirable response though, both Dr. Helmuth and Dr. Dreifus agreed that a lack of communication from the scientific community helped lead to the “demonization” of science, as well as the increasing rise of skeptics. Dr. Helmuth also noted that this effect was mitigated in countries with more science-positive governments and that the administrations in power at the time were not exempt from blame.

Scientific American made history in September 2020 by announcing its first presidential endorsement in 175 years, publicly stating its support for Joe Biden. The deliberation of the editors concluded that this was the right decision, considering the danger that science was facing. In the end, the choice worked out, with the journal even gaining a significant amount of subscribers. The Scientific American would continue its work combating misinformation, and still cover relevant COVID-19 news to this day. At this point in the talk, Dr. Helmuth began to answer questions from audience members.

On the difference between the US and Australia in regard to the rate of COVID-19-related deaths and overall trust in science, she attributed it in large part to the two-party system in the US, as well as a 20-year trend of conservative-leaning citizens trusting science less. To help fight against this trend, she advocated for more transparency from journalists, including showing where all of the published information is coming from and working hard to avoid confusion. When asked about the relationship between journalists and experts, especially where there is not a consensus in the scientific community, she suggested expanding the sampling range of experts, but also not being afraid of using the phrase “here is what we know so far” if necessary. A question was also raised on how we can apply lessons from the pandemic to the ongoing issue of climate change. She responded by suggesting journalists humanize the issue and avoid politicization—getting people engaged by bringing in the climate change problem to other stories, and making more interesting articles to encourage people to share them.

Although there is no concrete answer to what we learned in the pandemic, an audience question prompted a response that gave Dr. Helmuth’s opinion on the query. She stated that after the COVID-19 epidemic, the world as a whole better understands how to predict and track diseases, and the general populace has a far better vocabulary for referencing health issues and crises. There are also far more people interested in the public health sector and related fields, and society has learned (to some extent) that health workers need to be paid and treated better. Journalists also have a great amount of responsibility and capability to deal with stories involving worldwide issues. In her job as the editor-in-chief of Scientific American, she herself will also continue working to spread scientific awareness and literacy, whether it be about the COVID-19 pandemic or otherwise.

Panelists via Yacob Melman