What’s it like reporting on the pandemic? This was the key question during our online meet-up on July 8 with our panel of top science and health journalists including;Hannah Devlin , science correspondent, The Guardian, Deborah Cohen , BBCNewsnight correspondent, Anjana Ahuja, science writer, Financial Times, Emily Wilson , editor, New Scientist, Jacqui Thornton , freelance medical journalist, former health editor of The Sun and Rachael Buchanan , science and health journalist, BBC News.

The event was chaired by Hilly Janes, former Assistant Editor (health) at The Times and head of events and mentoring for WIJ.

The evening kicked off with each panelist explaining their experience of reporting on the pandemic.

Deb, who is medically qualified, said it has been “some of the hardest reporting” she has ever done. She said that it has been difficult partly because of the uncertainty of the science but people wanting certainty. “The wall of information coming at you is phenomenal and unlike anything I have known.”

Rachael is shielding and found the transition from working in Broadcasting House to home difficult at the start. Rachel said the appetite for content is large and at the start her team struggled to delegate tasks to each other. “Normally we would have a couple of stories running throughout the day and a few more for online and now we had to fill the entire bulletin.”

However, they were able to adapt and learn new ways to make television. “Normally making TV means going out with a camera crew and doing interviews face to face. But we quickly learned how to use Zoom, how to get better sound quality,” she said.

Hannah said that she found the pace of this was like nothing she had experienced before and the amount of material and demand from readers was off the scale: “I did a basic article about what is coronavirus and what the symptoms are and that is the most Guardian read article of all time now. That was a reflection of how much demand there was from the readers,” she said.

Hannah also said that the Guardian’s weekly science podcast switched to being a coronavirus podcast and they were getting listening figures that they wouldn’t normally get. A positive was that she started to work more with colleagues on different desks like politics and news.

Anjana said: “It’s been an absolute rollercoaster. As a specialist you put the pressure on yourself to step up.” She found it challenging to think about what the story will be and if you are making the right call. “You’re doing that as the story is happening everywhere. You really feel that you’re on your own in a way. But it’s been a story of a lifetime, I have really enjoyed it.”

Freelance global health journalist Jacqui Thornton stressed that it’s important that freelancers have a diverse portfolio. “While my global health work is going to really change, I’ve kept working for the BMJ on the NHS.”

Jaqui has been focusing on positive developments like how the NHS has been adapting. “I have had ICU doctors who have been for working hours and hours and they have still committed to doing an interview, and that has been really inspirational,” she said

Emily Wilson said that the New Scientist has had to change things to keep moving. “Since March 12th we have done nine news covers on the pandemic and that has been a big change for us as our covers are normally ideas-led.” A positive is that subscriptions are doing well and there has been a spike in website traffic. The discussion then turned to audience questions.

Hilly Janes asked the panel what the top skills that you need to become a science and health journalist.

Rachael : understand statistics and learn some data skills. “We are such a data rich society and there is such an amazing resource out there to find stories. So having a good understanding of scientific method and basic data skills so you can interrogate that data is really worthwhile.” She recommended the Royal Statistical  Society’s online modules for journalists

Hannah: develop a good relationship with a handful of experts. “Once you have developed that rapport with someone you can pick up the phone and hear about things that are going on early. Those contacts are invaluable.”

Deb : challenge your assumptions. “Keep an open mind about everything you are reporting.”

Anjana: understanding your subject is key. “Don’t be afraid to talk to people who know more than you. Pick something you enjoy, think about who it is that you enjoy reading or listening to and learn the craft.”

Emily gave some top feature writing advice: “You need a protagonist and they need to meet adversity and get knocked back. There needs to be that journey within every paragraph. Think deeply about what will bring each reader to the next paragraph.”

Finally, Hilly asked the panel how they have kept sane during the crisis.

Rachael : “You need to be able to turn the phone off and walk away.”
Jacqui: “Do whatever makes you feel good.” For her it’s online ballet classes in her kitchen.
Anjana: “Know your limits. Take a breath and step away and come back to it later.”
Hannah: “Have a bath and take a week off.”
Deb: “Turn off social media.”
Emily: “Wine.”

One audience member tweeted: “Just listening to the top WIJ UK panel of national health and science journalists talking about covering Covid pandemic. Hats off to this lot … can only imagine”

Another said, “As an aspiring science journalist I’m so thankful to have a fantastic group of women to look up to!”

WIJ is very grateful to Cision for supporting our online events