The hunger for health news has never been greater—but can hollowed-out newsrooms meet the need?
By Charlie Carey
Each day that the pandemic has dragged on—through 2020 and well into 2021—Canadians have turned to their local newspaper or broadcaster, looking for accurate information on Covid-19, vaccines, and any clues as to when it will all end. But as they search for answers, many are finding a shortage—the result of years of cutbacks that have taken an axe to beats like health.
Pamela Fayerman was one whose beat disappeared after she took a buyout from Postmedia on Jan. 1, 2020. She was one of about a dozen reporters to leave the company at that time, with the publisher of the Vancouver Sun and Province shedding another 44 positions in April of that year. With her gone, neither of Vancouver’s two dailies has a specialized health reporter.
Fayerman spent the majority of her career at the Sun, covering legal affairs before jumping to health in 1995. She was eight years into the beatwhen she won her first fellowship in neuroscience reporting at Columbia University; she also attended the Knight Science Journalism Bootcamp, Medical Evidence, at MIT in 2005. She says that having that sort of training and knowledge allowed her to “delve into issues deeply, to do more fact checking, to ask more—and better—questions.”
After leaving Postmedia, Fayerman started her own website, Medicine Matters, covering scientific research, public health, epidemiology and infectious diseases. She started the website because she wanted to write “explanatory articles I wasn’t seeing anywhere else,” says Fayerman, a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. She sees gaps in the way some reporters have covered the pandemic over the last 12 months—often through no fault of their own, given the lack of dedicated newsroom support.
“On a daily basis, there are numerous stories with gaping holes—probably because reporters don’t know what questions to ask and they are rushing to publish before getting all the answers.” To make her point, Fayerman points to a recent press conference on B.C. vaccination outcomes led by the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry: “No one asked if these potential vaccine harms were higher or lower than expected, whether the individual who got Bell’s Palsy recovered, (or) why one individual had to be hospitalized.”
Although the health reporting landscape has certainly changed since Covid hit, Ryerson University journalism chair Janice Neil says that, historically, the health beat has never been one that attracts many journalists.
“A lot of journalists will tell you they are very math- or STEM- (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) phobic,” says Neil. “They are people who in high school, or in their first degree, tended to specialize in humanities and the arts.”
While some news outlets have shown an interest in beefing up their health coverage since Covid began, the challenge, says Neil, will be finding reporters to do the job: “Where are you going to find these people? As wonderful as our students are, they’re taking one course and they’re great reporters when they graduate, but they’re not specialists by any means.”
Some reporters, like Fayerman, have received some post-journalism training in health, medical issues or science. But others have used their keen interest in the subject matter to help hone their coverage of the beat.
Moira Wyton started as The Tyee’s health reporter in March 2020—just weeks before a pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization.Wyton studied political science at UBC and started her career at the Edmonton Journal in 2019, reporting on provincial politics.
She came to The Tyee with a specific mandate to cover the health beat, as it was an area that the Vancouver-based news site saw as underserved. As events unfolded in 2020, it soon became apparent that the pandemic in particular would be the main focus of her beat.
Since Wyton didn’t have any specialized training in science, she decided to focus her reporting on the pressing public health issues surrounding Covid—and telling stories about racism in Covid health care, the intersection of Covid and the overdose crisis, and Covid-Zero analysis. “I’m not necessarily writing a story on every new study that comes out about how the virus acts or is transmitted or affects our bodies,” she notes.
As the world looks to the other end of the pandemic, Fayerman is hopeful that newsrooms will realize the importance of dedicated health reporters. While she notes that her own website isn’t a huge money-maker—”advertising revenue is growing, but it doesn’t replace a full salary”—she thinks that dedicating resources to health coverage remains a good investment.
“Newsroom leaders must realize that this pandemic isn’t the last we will see,” she says. “Having designated health reporters is a no-brainer.”