‘Question everything’: Global health reporter on lessons for 2021

Throughout 2020, journalists across the country have shared their best practices for working through the pandemic. As we approach 2021, we’re asking what they learned this year and what they hope to learn in the year to come. 

Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter at The New York Times

Name: Apoorva Mandavilli

Current job: Science and global health reporter, The New York Times

Previous Institute Q&A: ‘Question everything’: 3 tips for covering health when you usually don’t

What are the main lessons you learned this year from your reporting that you’ll use next year?

Mandavilli: Question everything. Before this pandemic, I took information from the CDC and the FDA more or less at face value. The events of the past year have reinforced how easily that information can be distorted by political agendas. I also learned the value of vetting my sources thoroughly. The pandemic gave rise to a lot of armchair experts who are deeply unqualified to talk about certain topics and yet freely give their opinions to anyone who will listen, including journalists. I learned to question the dogma in science (for example that PCR is an excellent test in any circumstance) and whether the ideas scientists cling to translate well to a pandemic. And finally, I learned to look for and analyze the data myself, rather than trust the canned analyses offered by officials.

How did your work change during the pandemic? 

Mandavilli: This year more than others, I relied on preprints (studies that have not yet been peer reviewed) and on anonymous sources much more than I have in previous years. I’ve done a lot of reporting via Twitter this year. This is also the most copy I have written in nearly 20 years.

What do you hope to learn or cover in the coming year? 

Mandavilli: I hope to learn exactly all the ways in which our pandemic response went wrong and what COVID’s long term effects are, but also what interesting scientific insights (e.g. about the immune system) we’ve uncovered because of the interest in studying COVID. I hope I’ll also be reporting on how our federal agencies recover from the damage to their credibility this year. And I hope I’ll write at least some stories that have nothing to do with COVID at all.

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Lois Wingerson
Lois Wingerson
9 months ago

I worked with Apoorva many years ago, before she gained her well-earned national recognition. It’s a delight to hear how the experience of COVID has deepened her commitment to the kind of responsible journalism we took for granted before the two equally disruptive events: the rise of the Internet and the current pandemic. Validating sources, checking the data for yourself, and questioning scientific dogma are all core principles of the best in science journalism, and it’s good to see her enjoying the fruits of that kind of labor. Her reporting is a breath of fresh air in a field that… Read more »