How to Cover a Global Story Working the Phone

In a pandemic, many reporters may have to work from home. No problem, says Helen Branswell, a medical reporter with the Canadian Press who has been a leading voice in the North American coverage of 2009 H1N1—all by following the right leads, finding the right sources, and asking the right questions from her office phone. In this section, Branswell shares some of what she’s learned covering influenza: how to tell a good source from a bad one; how to identify companies trying to cash in on the pandemic, and how to not fall for instant solutions to complex problems.

On this page...
  Pick up the phone and call »
  Critical stories to cover »
  Finding trustworthy sources »
  Do your homework before you call »
  Using blogs to inform your reporting »
  Don’t fall for instant cures »
  Important questions to ask »

Helen Branswell, Medical Reporter, The Canadian Press, Canada's Domestic News Agency:

(follow Helen on twitter @CP_Branswell)

Pick up the phone and call

There's no reason why somebody in Bangor or Chicago or anywhere can't cover this story to whatever degree they like, pretty much from wherever they are. I've written well over 200 stories about avian and pandemic flu and related topics. I regularly quote WHO officials from Geneva, from China, occasionally from Indonesia; I quote experts from the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, universities across the United States and Canada, and into Europe. And I do it all from my desk or my phone at home. The Canadian Press is a quite small agency with a very modest budget. I can't really jump on a plane at will but, for the most part, it really doesn't make much difference.

Critical stories to cover

In this conglomeration of different stories some might be of more interest to you and your readers than others. Others will be of critical interest to you and your readers. Among these various stories are:

The vaccine story—a big, big story.
The molecular biology story—what is it about this virus that makes it so unique; what could make it more virulent in the winter?
A story about non-pharmaceutical interventions that we heard about— things such as school closures. Do they work?
The story about what companies are doing and hospitals are doing to prepare for a severe pandemic; prepare for a severe second—or later—wave.
The stories about the ethical questions: Who will get vaccine first? Who will get limited antivirals first? How will hospitals triage patients? Who will get ventilators if supplies run short? How will hospitals decide whether it’s time to take someone off a ventilator if the chance of recovery is very low but the machine and the staff needed to run it are needed for other patients? What is the duty of care of health workers?
Will the pandemic affect businesses? Will there be supply chain problems? Will people agree to be vaccinated?

Finding trustworthy sources

All sources aren't created equal. The important thing to keep in mind is that there isn't a single flu expert out there who can effectively talk about all of these different subjects. What is fantastic is to hear a dependable source say, "This is outside of my realm of expertise." I trust them more, and I go back to them more when I need someone who can speak to their expertise. Here are some tips on sources:

Anybody who wants to talk about every story regardless of what sort of subhead it comes under in flu, you really don't want to be talking to that person.
If you're writing about the science of flu, whether it's seasonal, swine, avian or pandemic, and you're thinking about quoting somebody who isn't a well-known, mainstream flu specialist, it's really worth doing a PubMed search on them. See what they've published on flu.
There’s a physician who is widely quoted on a variety of flu topics that go well beyond what you might expect someone without an infectious diseases specialty to know about influenza. I've seen him quoted commenting on studies about the molecular biology of flu—things like whether a specific virus binds to the right receptor binding sites to cause infections in humans and if it doesn't, what mutations might be needed to give it that ability. Search PubMed for his influenza research and you won't find a single citation. Is he really the right person to be talking about the crystal structure of a hemagglutinin or the difficulties of developing a universal flu vaccine?
Who you talk to matters, both for the quality of the work that you're producing for your readers and also because the people who are taking the subject seriously read the serious work. The experts watch us; if they see us quoting people who aren't really high caliber, it's going to influence whether or not they're going to take your call.

Do your homework before you call

Before you contact a source, do your homework first, read the study. E-mail first, then call. And there's no reason to stick to the continental United States. You can dial anywhere, and there are experts on this subject in Hong Kong; Jakarta; Beijing; Atlanta and Athens, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio and Ho Chi Minh City. I call these places all the time. They're great people. There's no point in not using them.

Using blogs to inform your reporting

People in the blogosphere have been following this story avidly for a long time. Their blogs are interesting, and sometimes they're useful and sometimes they're scary. There's a great blog called H5N1 that doesn't really offer a lot of analysis, but it's a good way to keep up on what's going on. I use that quite a bit. There's a terrific blog called Effect Measure where there's quite a bit of very useful analysis. Then there are some places that are really wildly inaccurate and full of rumors and, with the rumors, you just have to understand them and keep them in context. As reporters, we need to keep an eye on blogs, but you really, really need to back-check them.

Don’t fall for instant cures

There are a lot of companies trying to cash in on the pandemic. Lots are issuing press releases claiming their experiment flu vaccine or drug or environmental cleaning product has been shown to do this or that. Mostly this is about moving stock prices. If you are a financial reporter, these may be important for you. If you are drawn to the release because you think they might have a product that will be useful in the response to this pandemic, you need to ask questions about timelines. Here are some examples:

New vaccines—vaccines that are in phase 1 or 2 trials—will not be ready in time for use in this pandemic. The amount of risk regulators will take depends on the risk posed by the virus, and this virus isn’t posing enough risk for regulators to take many. So those promising experimental vaccines made in novel ways—they may be great for the next pandemic and they may improve the way seasonal flu vaccine is made, but they won’t be marketed on a commercial scale any time soon.
Same goes for new drugs. If a drug is still clinical trials, it is some time—a few years?—from being available commercially. Even a company that announces Phase 3 data will have to apply to the FDA or national drug regulator and will need to scale up production capacity. It won’t have a product ready to help in the response to a peak of swine flu this fall.
Sometimes even the journals fall into this trap. The Lancet recently posted a letter from clinicians in the UK announcing they’d treated a gravely ill swine flu patient with intravenous zanamivir (Relenza), a formulation of the drug which hasn’t been licensed and was used under emergency use provisions. The ensuing media coverage implied this was a potential new weapon against swine flu. There’s just one problem—there are something like a few hundred treatment courses of the IV Relenza in the world. IV Relenza probably isn’t going to be a major weapon in this pandemic, unless the manufacturer decides to ramp up production of a currently unlicensed drug.

Important questions to ask

It is important to remember the question “Did it work?” isn’t the only one that needs to be answered. Is it licensed? How close to being licensed is it? How quickly can it be made to commercial scale? How soon can it realistically be rolled out on the market? If the answers are “18 to 24 months” or even longer, you are talking about something that will have no bearing on this pandemic.

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