‘Exhilarating, exciting, exhausting’: New York Times reporter speaks on covering the COVID-19 pandemic
Bella Laufenberg | Friday, February 11, 2022
Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter for The New York Times, spoke to students and faculty Wednesday about her experience covering the COVID-19 pandemic.
After completing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, Mandavilli said she intended to be a scientist. Four years into her doctoral degree, however, Mandavilli said she “didn’t feel challenged enough” and realized her true calling was journalism — specifically science journalism.
“I was going to be an expert in this one very, very small area, and it wasn’t going to satisfy my curiosity for science, which is much broader,” she said.
Her path to The New York Times, she said, was not linear. She began her career by getting a master’s degree in journalism from New York University and working at a community newspaper.
She said the majority of her career was spent writing for scientific publications and editing for scientists, not a path she thought would lead her to the Times.
Mandavilli said she had been freelancing for the Times prior to the start of the pandemic for a couple of years, and she had gone to a company holiday party in January in which colleagues were discussing COVID-19.
“At the end of January, it was clear that [COVID-19] was going to be something, and so we were all talking about ideas,” she explained. “I just got sort of pulled into their coverage, and I started to do more and more and more. But I also had a day job — I was the Editor-in-Chief of ‘Spectrum,’ an autism science magazine.”
A Times editor called offering her an opportunity to cover the pandemic, Mandavilli said. She realized it was an “opportunity of a lifetime” and then began to cover COVID-19 full-time.
Mandavilli’s lecture, titled “Unprecedented: Reporting on a Pandemic,” was part of the Charles Edison lecture series and was sponsored by the College of Science and the John W. Gallivan program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.
Santiago Schnell, dean of the College of Science, introduced Mandavilli and the lecture’s moderator, Abby Urban. Urban is junior Film, Television and Theatre major pursuing a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy.
The lecture was organized as a moderated question and answer session. During the first half, Urban asked Mandavilli prepared questions, and then the audience was encouraged to ask questions as well.
Mandavilli began by giving a short introduction to herself, explaining what it means to be a COVID-19 reporter.
“There are about five or six of us that write about COVID regularly, and I’m one of the main COVID reporters. So, what that has meant is that the last two years of my life have been exhilarating, exciting, exhausting,” she said. “For all of us reporters, the pace of reporting has been pretty relentless. In a pandemic like this, especially when even the experts don’t know a lot and the government doesn’t know a lot, it becomes even more important for journalists to jump in and interpret everything that’s happening.”
Mandavilli explained that, at least at the beginning, she had to be really careful with what she was writing because of the lack of knowledge of COVID-19 in the scientific community and the general public. She also noted the many instances she had to change story directions because of new recommendations coming out, such as the information about masking at the beginning of the pandemic.
“One of the things we really tried to do is not sway with the recommendations, but rather always have a step back and say, ‘This is what the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says. This is what other experts think about it, does it make sense? Is it a wise move?’” she said. “Our job is not just to report what the CDC is doing, but all of the context around it.”
One struggle Mandavilli shared was dealing with burnout that resulted from experiencing COVID-19 in a professional manner.
“I was really burnt out at the beginning of 2021,” Mandavilli said. “But I think one way that I’ve tried to continue and not let that completely take over is by looking at the virus as… a very professional thing that I have to write about.”
The other questions posed to Mandavilli ranged from how she handles her sources or comes up with story ideas to what other areas of science she is interested in.
One person from the audience asked how Mandavilli balanced promoting public health measures with a healthy uncertainty of science.
“Public health experts, in particular, have thought that it is my job to do their job for them and tell people what they should be doing, but that’s not my job,” she said. “My job is to find where the truth lies in between the extremes. That’s not always popular.”
Mandavilli referenced a story she wrote in fall 2020 about how small gatherings were not fueling the COVID-19 surge as much as public health officials were saying.
She also gave advice to budding journalists, encouraging them to be curious and skeptical and to write as much as possible.
“Be curious because ultimately, that’s what journalism is about: asking questions,” Mandavilli said. “Be skeptical. I think I’ve learned that more in the last couple of years than I ever did before — be skeptical of everybody and everything.”