Reporting on the pandemic: the role of data and science

April 14, 2021

In the midst of conflicting information that accompanied the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, data and science have played a critical role in advancing fact-based coverage, said Pulitzer Center journalists during a Northwestern Qatar webinar on science journalism.
Pulitzer Center journalists Eliza Barclay, Charles Piller, and Youyou Zhou discussed how data analysis and data visualization in newsrooms have resulted in well-informed reporting of the pandemic.
Piller, an investigative reporter at Science Magazine, said that the pandemic has transformed science journalists' role “from being merely translators whose job is to convey scientific information uncritically to being impactful storytellers who are mobilizing publics through compelling, science-grounded reporting.”    

Zhou, a New York-based data and visual journalist, explained how specialist data reporters are combining their data analysis expertise with their journalistic skills to quickly distinguish between fact-based news and fake news – telling compelling human stories that have often been overlooked in the mainstream media’s coverage of the crisis.
She also pointed out that incorporating data analysis in editorial decision-making has helped journalists report scientifically supported information clearly and concisely by allowing them to realign their messages with new scientific discoveries and examine the changing context of the pandemic throughout the long-term news cycle.
Vox’s science and health editor, Barclay, added that using data visualizations and engaging graphics has also enabled journalists to capture the impact of the pandemic on different segments of society and to communicate the complex information to readers.
“It's one thing to just have a chart that shows something important,” she said, “and it’s another thing to have a compelling visualization of the data that engages with the stories embedded in that data [and critically examines] how certain groups have been really disproportionately affected by the pandemic.”
With misinformation and conspiracy theories rapidly swirling around Covid-19 vaccines, Piller argued that science journalists have a particularly important role to play as countries start vaccinating their populations. By reporting on clinical trial results and prioritizing expert opinions, Piller said that “science journalists are leading the efforts to combat misinformation and restore people’s trust in science.”
The event – Data, Science and Journalism in the Age of COVID — is part of a series of annual discussions Northwestern Qatar hosts in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center. Northwestern Qatar students have received grants and fellowships for international reporting projects and educational programs focusing on news issues of urgency and concern.