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From outbreaks to breakthroughs: Tackling infectious and zoonotic diseases

By: Nathi Magubane Date: Mar 27, 2023
A 3D rendering of the mpox virus
A 3D rendering of the mpox virus, a viral disease that can spread between people and certain animals. (Image: iStock/ Naeblys )

Penn Vet’s Institute for Infectious and Zoonotic Diseases inaugural academic symposium welcomes keynote speaker Katherine J. Wu of The Atlantic.

Three years into what feels like a never-ending pandemic, science news has become more than an afterthought to many; it’s a ring buoy for those drowning in a sea of misleading information. The ongoing COVID-19 situation points to the increasingly difficult position science journalists face as they work to disseminate accurate and timely information to the public.

Leading up to the inaugural symposium hosted by the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Institute for Infectious and Zoonotic Diseases, “From Outbreaks to Breakthroughs: Tackling Infectious and Zoonotic Diseases,” Penn Today met with its keynote speaker Katherine J. Wu, former infectious disease researcher turned staff writer for The Atlantic, to discuss some of the ways she approaches challenges associated with reporting on infectious diseases during a pandemic.

Wu explains that there are some inherent communication problems in trying to write about science for a non-scientific audience. But now, those challenges are amplified and a little more complicated during the pandemic. Data is emerging at blistering paces, the stakes are enormously high, and there’s a lot of misinformation moving around at the same rate as facts. It’s also not intuitive to the public, or even journalists, who is a real expert on a subject and who is not.

What’s been most challenging about reporting on rapidly changing information?

Many things, but I can’t pretend these issues aren’t just a part of science journalism in any other context. The tricky part of science, and reality by extension, is that nothing is ever set in stone; data is constantly emerging and its sort of changing the broader narrative whether it’s teeny-tiny nuances that the public might not notice or major shifts that need us to change our approach.

For instance, early in the pandemic, the leading narrative was that no one really needed a mask, and then we realized that was not quite the case. The virus was much more airborne than people initially suspected. It quickly became clear that it was important to prevent the spread from infected people to others and to protect ourselves from infection by masking up.

Situations in the pandemic have also actively changed alongside our understanding of it, so the story has had to change as things like new technologies became available, and in a crisis, this makes things difficult because people naturally want clear-cut answers. They want the answers that are not just true today but also tomorrow, the next week, month, year, and so on. Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen.

This can come off as patronizing or some people may feel betrayed, which is completely understandable, peoples’ lives and well-being are at stake and we all just want some semblance of control or normalcy, but what turns out to be true at this point in time may not hold true for all that long and conveying that can be challenging.

Has the relationship between science journalists and the public or audiences changed?

Well, when I first entered the science journalism job market, a lot of publications considered it the kind of sleepier part of their outlet. As in, front-page news was generally for politics or global events and if there was a scientific discovery it was something like a new cancer drug, which is important writ large, but what I’m getting at is that I don’t think anyone could have predicted five years ago that T cells would be on the front page of The New York Times. So, it seems like things have shifted. There’s this new underlying expectation for science to be breaking news or something more high profile, which I wouldn’t characterize as a unilaterally good thing because with this elevated prominence comes a higher degree of polarization.

Overall, while it’s great to see an appreciation for scientific innovation, this has also opened the door to more scrutiny and a lot more misinformation about science, the kind we might have more commonly associated with tech or politics a few years ago.

How has the increased popularity of science made reporting on it more difficult?

Having to tell the same story over and over again and finding new ways to tell it can be quite challenging at times. And I think this is multifaceted because, first, you need to get people interested in a topic they’ve already seen multiple times and then figure out how to tell the story without interviewing the same 10 people everyone else is talking to and then identify new ways to talk about this information to engage new audiences as well.

And as the pandemic has dragged on, many of the issues we cover have become murkier in a seemingly counterintuitive way. We get more information, but the finer details tend to cause more disagreement.

For example, when the vaccines first came out, the expert consensus was that we should all get the vaccine as soon as possible, which hasn’t necessarily changed the bottom line of it all, but more nuances have surfaced since. Now that some time has passed, things like how many booster shots people might need each year or how the chemical composition of the booster shots needs to change seem unclear, these subtleties can be hard to convey in an understandable way.

What steps have you taken to maintain audience trust?

For the most part, I feel readers truly trust us when they’re being leveled with in a transparent way and when we can let them know that we don’t know. As in pointing out that there is a hole in our knowledge and that it may stay that way for a long time, possibly forever, or letting them know that experts disagree on certain measures for specific cases and there’s no real consensus.

It’s also important to make audiences savvy to the idea that the scientists we speak to are also humans, and sometimes these are humans who may have other motivations. For the most part, many are purely working on giving the best possible data, but just like in any other imaginable facet of life there are bad actors, so part of our job is to be skeptical and hold power to account when necessary.

What changes would you like to see?

There are a couple of things I’d like to see, but I’ll start with how wonderful it was to meet with and speak to so many researchers during the pandemic, and now I’m interested in how these relationships will carry on going forward.

I think a lot of scientists, researchers, doctors, clinicians, and people from all over health and public health started interacting with the media in new and interesting ways; I’d like to see that stick around.

Also, COVID is still incredibly important, but naturally people are becoming increasingly fatigued with all the news covering it. So, my hope is that the collective consciousness stays invested in infectious diseases and keeps the momentum going, not just here in the United States but in the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, sometimes it does take a pandemic to show that a virus is widespread and can affect everyone. And to further that, a virus can significantly impact people in less resource-rich parts of the world; this is true for the dozens of other infectious diseases and outbreaks going on long before the onset of the pandemic. So, I really hope people keep writing about them, now and in the future.