In conversation: how Covid-19 has changed health journalism

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THE world is now 1 year into the Covid-19 pandemic. In a con versation with four fellow journalists, we discussed how the last year has shaped both our work and our personal lives.

A year ago, I wrote a feature called “Covid-19 is now a pandemic: What next?” We all know what followed.

But how journalists adapted to the pace of the pandemic may be a lesser known thing.

To mark the anniversary of the World Health Organisation (WHO) declaring Covid-19 as a pandemic, I spoke with four journalists.

In our conversation, we addressed the challenges of keeping pace with the fast emerging science of SARS-CoV-2.

We also discussed how the past year has blurred the boundaries between our professional and personal lives and reflected on what the pandemic may mean for health journalism in the long run.

We kicked off our discussion with a hot potato topic — the preprint. Before the pandemic, many health news stories were based on research published in peer reviewed scientific journals.

To write these stories, journalists might typically use a combination of the published paper, an accompanying press release, quotes from the researchers, and commentary provided by external experts. Or that was certainly the case at MNT.

Throw in a novel coronavirus, and journalists were faced with a host of papers that had not undergone peer review yet.

Peer review sees scientific journals working with external academic experts, who are not involved in the research, to review the science.

This can be a lengthy process, with some papers taking months or even years to go from the final experimental work to be ready for publication, undergoing several iterations.

This robust method is ingrained in the academic scientific process. In recent years, researchers have increasingly taken to posting their manuscripts on preprint servers, repositories for results that have yet to undergo peer review.

While health journalists have traditionally steered clear of reporting on these preprint papers, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a seismic shift.

With thousands of papers now covering every aspect of SARS-CoV-2, the peer review process has, to some extent, fallen by the wayside.

To stay on top of the most up-to-date developments, journalists had to get to grips with preprint manuscripts. But this approach is not without its issues.