As a bewildered public sought answers to arcane questions about R numbers, spike proteins and vaccine efficacy in 2020, science writers emerged as important sources of public clarity and understanding.
The Atlantic’s Ed Yong Stands out — both for the volume and quality of his work. Yong has worked at The Atlantic as a science writer since 2015 and has been predicting a pandemic almost as long.
In early February, Yong sat down for a Zoom interview (of course) with Stephen Buckley, the lead story editor of Global Press and a member of Poynter’s board of trustees, for a conversation for Poynter’s staff and National Advisory Board. Yong spoke about what it was like to cover the pandemic he knew was coming, the challenges of denialism and misinformation and 2020’s impact on his mental health.
He also reflects on implications for other kinds of journalism.
That conversation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Stephen Buckley: When did you realize you were covering the story of the century? When did it strike you?
Ed Yong: Probably around March, I think, when businesses were shutting down, schools were shutting down, and people were starting to make their way toward the long period of isolation that many of us are still in.
It was sort of a weird start of the year for me, because I had written about the threat of pandemics in 2018. Two years before that I wrote a piece about whether a Trump administration would be ready to deal with the pandemic. This is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.
But the start of 2020 found me about a third of the way into a long period of book leave, and that was the project that I was focused on while SARS-CoV-2 was making its way around China and then across the rest of the world. So while I was still trying to focus on that project, my colleagues at The Atlantic did a great job with starting to cover the pandemic in the early months of January and February.
But by the time it came to March, it became clear this problem was not ready to go away, it was going to define us as a generation, it was going to uproot all of our lives, and that it demanded the full attention of everyone at The Atlantic. So I dropped my book leave, started covering the pandemic, and continued doing so for the rest of the year.
Buckley: Ed, talk a little bit about the challenges in those early days of covering this pandemic.
Yong: Sure, in many ways they were the same challenges that persisted throughout the entirety of 2020. This is an omni-crisis. It truly is huge in scope, in its stakes. It touches on every sector of society so, while I am a science journalist who’s written about pandemics before, this is clearly not just a science story. It’s also an education story, a politics story, a culture story. It transcends beats and it transcends areas of expertise, which makes it very challenging to cover.
It also, clearly, involves a lot of unknowns. So much was unknown about the virus, about the disease, about what was happening. In some ways, I think being a science journalist by training helps with that. If we do our jobs correctly, we should be well-geared towards running at uncertainty and embracing uncertainty, rather than shying away from it or being cowed by it.
I think a lot of our training really kicked in in March and April. Rather than to seek out cheap and easy answers for our readers, it drove us towards trying to sort of delimit the bounds of our own expertise, of us as journalists but also as part of a society, how much we knew and how much we did not know.
And I think that there was just so much to write about, there still is so much to write about, so many angles to cover, so many things to possibly dig into. Picking those battles was a challenge right from the start.
Buckley: On top of that, you had this denialism that blossomed. How much of a challenge was that and how did you handle that?
Yong: It’s tough. Obviously, I don’t think a lot of science or health writers were strangers to the idea of denialism. We are familiar with issues about vaccinations, about climate change, about creationism, about all sorts of different areas that I think we all have had to struggle with for a long time.
Obviously, the pandemic really takes every possible weakness in society and widens them, so to the extent that denialism and anti-expertise attitudes were a problem beforehand, they were exacerbated and widened by COVID-19. It’s the same problem that we’ve dealt with for a long time, but just amplified to the nth degree. And I think that it’s not just so much the denialism that is a problem, but the constant, persistent nature of that denialism.
COVID-19 is a singular crisis, not like, say, a hurricane or a bush fire or something of that kind. It doesn’t just come and go. It lasts. It rolls on for weeks, for months, now for years. And so, all the problems that one faces in covering it last about the same amount of time.
I’ve described the process of covering COVID-19 as like being gaslighted on a daily basis by absolutely everyone, from some random person on Twitter to the president of the United States. And that is an ongoing battle that just erodes your soul.
A lot of us who worked in health and science joked that covering the pandemic was a case of trying to find new and exciting ways of saying exactly the same things again, and again, and again. So, the problems that we were facing in March repeated themselves in the summer, again in the fall and winter, again, and again, and again. So you have to find sort of creative ways of getting across the same messages.
I don’t think people are used to crises that roll on for this amount of time and so, after a while, people start asking questions like, so what is new? What’s the new thing about the pandemic? And, often, the new thing is actually the old thing but skipped forward a few months. Trying to cover that kind of rolling, repetitive crisis is very challenging.
Buckley: So how did you do that?
Yong: That’s a good question. The Atlantic has a very good atmosphere. It’s got a newsroom which is highly generative. We make extensive use of Slack. Everyone at The Atlantic — the people who cover science and health, and the pandemic, in particular — are constantly there, sharing ideas, posting links to other people’s stories, asking questions, trying to collectively make sense of this story amongst ourselves. And that generative atmosphere is really useful for any individual reporter trying to find the right stories to tackle. It makes us as a newsroom collectively stronger than the sum of our parts, and for me personally.
When I came back from book leave, I was given a very specific mandate, which was, “Don’t just do small piecemeal stories that are going to look at one tiny pixel of this bigger picture. Take the biggest possible swing you can take.” I realize I’m horribly mixing metaphors here but bear with me. “Take the biggest possible swing, do a story that is really going to help ground our readers, and give them a sense of stability in the midst of all this turmoil that we’re all facing.”
The first piece I wrote was called “How the pandemic will end,” and it really was a 50,000-foot look at the present, future and far future of COVID-19. And it was one of a succession of features that I did. I spent all of last year writing, I don’t know how many it was now, somewhere between 15 and 20 very big, 3,000 to 8,000-word feature stories, and various stories of smaller length. All of these were attempts at trying to second-guess the imminent zeitgeist, to try and predict the kinds of questions that our readers would be asking that maybe even themselves didn’t realize that they were asking. So ‘how would the pandemic end’ was one of them. Why is everything so confusing? Why are we making the same mistakes again, and again, and again?
I’ve used this metaphor to death but I’m going to repeat it because it works for me: Compare the pandemic to a raging torrent, a body of water that moves at high speed and threatens to sweep us all away and drown us in this sea of information and also misinformation. I think of good journalism as a platform in the middle of that, something for people to stand on so that they can observe this torrential flow of history moving past them without themselves getting submerged in it. And that’s the kind of mindset that I tried to bear in mind throughout 2020 and the kind of purpose that I was trying to instill in the work that I was doing.
Buckley: So you said that you were thinking about questions that the audience hadn’t even thought of yet. Obviously, The Atlantic gets a pretty sophisticated audience. Were you thinking of someone specific as you were writing these stories?
Yong: Not really. It’s funny, in science writing in particular there’s often this old idea of trying to explain things to your grandmother, which is both ageist and sexist. So, for us, we were just trying to think of what all of us were thinking of.
For a story this big and this all-consuming, we are all readers as well as producers of the news, so my colleagues had questions that they were asking about from positions of no expertise. And, by sort of doing that for each other in a way that was largely bereft of ego and arrogance, I think we could act as each other’s hypothetical, platonic readers. I think that really helped us try and work out what was sort of coming down the pipeline, and what type of things you could cover.
I remember being in umpteenth Zoom calls with other colleagues when people would ask questions that to me were frustrating, that made me think: I covered this in my last piece. But that’s a clue, that tells you the sort of things that are still lingering and that feel like they’ve been unanswered in even the minds of people who are paying very close attention, and therefore need to be addressed again.
Buckley: Ed, can you talk a little bit about how this experience has changed you as a reporter?
Yong: Well, I’m more tired than I was at the start of 2020.
I sort of hinted at this earlier, when I said this was an omni-crisis that transcends beats, and to cover the pandemic well, I tried to reach out to a much, much broader range of sources than the types of people I normally talk to for a science story. Not just virologists and immunologists and epidemiologists, but also sociologists and historians and linguists and anthropologists. So people could come from a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different lines of expertise to offer. And that was absolutely crucial for writing the kinds of pieces that I think actually made a difference, that showed the full extent of the pandemic as a thing that impacts all of society, and that’s not just a science or health story.
So, that does make me think what actually is my beat? Am I a science reporter? Or am I something different than that at the end of 2020, compared to the start of it? I still don’t really know the answers to that.
It also has made me think differently about the kind of ambitious work that can resonate with our readers. For a lot of my career, I’ve done big features, I’ve tackled big stories, but I cut my teeth on and spend a lot of my time on doing the very basic unit of science reporting, which is just to write about a new paper or a new study that’s come out. New paper comes out, we write about it, boom, up it goes on our website, we have more content, everyone’s happy.
And that is what I thought that I might do in March when I came back to working full-time, and actually stepping back from that and thinking, maybe we could do a series of 5,000-word pieces, maybe that would be a good idea. And for that to actually work, to drive millions of views to our sites, tens of thousands of subscriptions, just a huge response from fellow journalists, from our readers, from all sorts of people. In March and April alone, I had several thousand emails from readers in my inbox.
So, for that approach to work, I think, tells us something. I think it tells us something about the type of journalism that matters in moments of crisis. And I think it also tells me about the kinds of environments that allow that journalism to happen. I wouldn’t have been able to do that kind of work if my editors hadn’t specifically told me to do that, and then giving me the time and space to do so, people weren’t breathing down my neck every day saying, “Can you just write this 600-word story about some new thing that’s happened?”
When I said that I was going to take two weeks to write a 5,000-word piece, they let me spend two weeks to write a 5,000-word piece, and you can’t do it without that kind of environment.
Buckley: That is great, lots of great insights, lots of great lessons. Were there points where you were worried about moving too fast? Was there a moment where you trusted the science, but found out later that the science wasn’t as solid? I’m thinking about some of the discussions about masks, or how deadly the virus was. How can you accurately convey to the readers what we don’t know?
Yong: It’s a really good question, and it’s one of the things that made writing about the pandemic so difficult. Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns, and while there is a lot of consensus from the scientific community on many issues like, for example, COVID is real, there is also a lot of debate around many, many things.
And I’m not unfamiliar with this as a science writer. I know through 16 years of doing this that scientists disagree, that published work is often wrong, that science is not a procession of facts, but a gradual and erratic stumble towards slightly less uncertainty. And that’s the kind of mindset that I’ve brought into reporting about COVID, so it’s not a case of trusting the science or trusting scientists, it’s a case of trusting my reporting.
For any topic that I write about, I try and talk to a range of different people, get a range of different views from experts who might well disagree with each other, and then present that to readers. I see that as a strength rather than a weakness, and the more complicated, the more divisive, the more controversial something is, the more people will then be reaching out to comment. I try very hard to integrate across all those different lines of expertise to come to my own conclusions, but then also to showcase that range of opinions to people.
I wrote a piece in very early April about issues of airborne transmission, about whether to use masks or not. That was sort of at the cusp of the mask debate, when it was really quite intense, but when I think a ton of consensus had been achieved. And I look back on the piece and actually feel quite happy about it. It doesn’t say “wear a mask,” but I think it walks readers through the debate in a very careful way, shows what the experts on different sides of that debate think and why they think what they think. I think it leads people towards the conclusion of “use masks.”
But I trust them to go on that intellectual journey with me, and that’s what I tried to do throughout the pandemic for the readers. It’s almost like showing them your work, rather than just hitting them with the answer and leaving it at that. I think that’s just a much more enriching experience but also one that better stands the test of time.
Buckley: Let’s talk about your point about people wanting a new narrative, but the story of the pandemic at many times being really the same story. How did you wrestle with the tug to tell “a new story about COVID?”
Yong: This is a really great question. It is something that weighed on all of us at The Atlantic very heavily throughout the year. How do we tell new stories about something that so often repeats itself?
Probably, the most important thing to say here is that the ethos for all of us, me and my colleagues, was to do work that mattered to our readers and that helped them, that acted as a public service, and not just find things that are new for the sake of it. As an industry, the fact that we gravitate so much toward what is new and what is novel often reduces the relevance and the usefulness of our work. It sometimes leads our work to be a poor reflection of what is actually happening.
After the U.S. started reopening, I believe it was in May-ish, people gravitated towards stories about people doing things that were different — like going back into the world, and protesting stay-at-home orders. These things were not just more visually obvious, but newer, and it glossed over the fact that actually a lot of people were still doing the same old thing. They were staying at home, they were being responsible, they were being safe. Those kinds of stories were lost among this desire to find something new. So we were trying to be very cautious about not looking for new things for the sake of it, just because they are new, but to try to find angles that mattered to our readers.
I think there were a couple that I tried to focus on. So one was actually just making hay of the fact that a lot of things weren’t new, that we seemed to be stuck in the same rut. I wrote a long piece called “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral” that tried to break down and analyze exactly why we were making the same mistakes again. It was sort of a nine-part taxonomy of our consistent and persistent failures at dealing with COVID-19. You know, you can turn a problem into a solution.
The other way of wrestling with this question is to look at areas where the ongoing nature and the repetitive nature of the pandemic is part of the problem. The fact that a lot of long haulers still were dealing with symptoms six, seven, eight months into the crisis. The fact that health care workers couldn’t get a break, that they were still exhausted and ever more so with each new surge. All of these stories have the repetitive nature of COVID-19 at their core, and they treat them as the impetus for more reporting rather than a problem that we need to fix.
Buckley: What are you doing to take care of yourself as you carry the weight of this international crisis? Have you had COVID? How did you avoid getting sick?
Yong: I have not had COVID, touch wood, and I feel very lucky for that. My wife and I have been basically isolated since March. We’ve gone to get groceries, I had one trip to the DMV, we saw maybe like five pairs of friends, once every month or so, outdoors. The only people we spent time indoors with were one other couple who we form a very tight pod with, in December. That’s basically my life. I’ve not been to a restaurant since March. I’ve not been to a bar. I’m taking this very, very seriously.
In terms of self-care, I can’t say that I did the best job at that. It was very, very difficult, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned: the scope of the story; the stakes; the fact that this reporting was a matter of life and death; the fact that there was so much uncertainty; the gaslighting; the persistent, ongoing nature. The questions you then ask yourself as a result: Does the work I’m doing make any difference at all or am I just shouting into the void? And then, on top of that, the actual, same problems that everyone else is dealing with: the dismal nature of being in isolation for so long, missing people, missing your friends.
It was hard, and just the speed at which I was trying to work was very difficult. I took one week off in July, which was great, and then I tried to take another week off in late September and, halfway through that, Trump got COVID. So thanks for that, Donald.
To answer the question, I came very, very close to burning out at the end of the year. I wouldn’t say I had depression, but I also would not say I was far from it. What I have done now is to actually fully step away from the pandemic for a few months. So I said that I started this in the middle of a book leave — I am now finishing that book. I went back on book leave on Jan. 1, and I will be continuing that way for a few months yet, and it’s been great.
I think it is important to recognize that this kind of reporting takes a serious mental health toll, to be cognizant of that, and to not see it as a weakness. I did the absolute best I could last year. I worked harder than I have ever worked before. It was untenable, it became untenable, and I needed to stop and step away.
I think it is telling about what pandemic reporting for nine solid months is like, that writing a book now feels like being at a spa. It feels like a deeply relaxing and restorative activity. I have written 25,000 words since Jan. 1, and zero of them were about the pandemic or disaster or catastrophe, and I feel much, much happier at work.
Buckley: Last March, you wrote of the effort to create a vaccine: “The first steps have been impressively quick. Last Monday, a possible vaccine created by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health went into early clinical testing. That marks a 63-day gap between scientists sequencing the virus’s genes for the first time and doctors injecting a vaccine candidate into a person’s arm.” How do you rate the development of this vaccine among the scientific achievements you’ve seen?
Yong: I can’t give a league table to you but I think it is undoubtedly impressive. It is, by some way, the fastest vaccine that has ever been developed. This is a challenge that used to take decades, certainly many, many years, and even in March very, very well-seasoned experts in vaccinology were predicting that it might take 18 months, 24 months to get a vaccine. We did it in under 12, which is truly miraculous.
I think there are many reasons for that. A lot of investments were made in exactly this kind of technology, so it’s not like people had to invent mRNA vaccines from scratch in January 2020. This tech was ready to go. It hadn’t entered into market yet, but it was on the way. This tech was developed specifically to develop vaccines at breakneck speed when new pathogens should rise. And it did, so that’s great.
How does it compare to anything else? I don’t know how you would compare this to the eradication of smallpox or to anything else. I do not think you can weigh scientific value in that way.
I do think that it would be wrong of us to only focus on the vaccine and to see the creation of a vaccine in such a short time as this enormous win. It was a win, but let’s not forget that there were many months in which a lot of people died, and things that were done that could have saved them were not done, such as creating a workable national pandemic strategy, such as using mask mandates, massively rolling out personal protective equipment, offering things like paid sick leave, and all these social interventions for people.
America, in particular, and to an extent the world at large, has this very biomedical bias when it comes to medical problems. We look for the panacea. We look for the drug or vaccine that is going to come along and save us. And sure, we have a vaccine now and it is saving us, which is great, but I think if you only look at medical problems through this lens, you miss all the things that allow epidemics to happen: poor sanitation, poverty, racism and discrimination. All of these things make things like COVID-19 much worse than they otherwise would have been. If we only look at vaccines, we miss that bigger picture. I think that we will be equally vulnerable to another pathogen, when the next one inevitably arrives.
Buckley: What’s your sense about the influence of politics of all stripes on what we might want to feel are independent scientific experts, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, etc.? Are their experts still credible? Have we deified Fauci to an uncomfortable degree?
Yong: Great question. I think that I personally agree that the deification of any one expert makes me very uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable both as a journalist and as someone with a science background, for several reasons.
I think we, as a journalistic community, as a scientific community, and the society at large, are actually really poor at picking heroes. We’re not very good at assessing personal merit, expertise, or a lot of other qualities that we really want to be good at assessing.
In science, in particular, I think we’ve run into a lot of trouble when we elevate any particular person to this extremely high status. Science is about more than that. It is about more than the cult of personality and the individual. We should try and resist that. We should resist that as journalists, too, because I think it makes us too beholden to any particular source.
So, I have a lot of time for Anthony Fauci. I respect him tremendously. He does seem by all accounts to be a good person, which I think matters. But he’s only the industry’s one of many, and so I’m not fond of doing single-source stories. I’m not even really fond of doing 10-source stories. Most of the big pieces I’ve done, I’ve talked to dozens of different people, including Tony Fauci, but I’m trying to triangulate across a large number of different sources of expertise, not just from different disciplines, but from different career stages and so on.
So, yeah, I think this is a very salient point about resisting the urge to make too much of any one person. And, obviously, for much of the Trump administration, we didn’t exactly have rich pickings to choose from. But I do want us to get back to the situation where someone like Tony is just one expert among many, and one person whose views we should treat with the appropriate amount of skepticism for both of these fields of both science and journalism.
Buckley: From the start of the pandemic, many thought that, as the reality sank in, as red states started to experience the cost, facts and science would prevail. But so many still reject the science. They say this is hyped or a hoax. How do you make sense of this?
Yong: This actually doesn’t feel like that enormous a mystery to me. It’s very consistent with everything we know about the science of science communication, which is a huge and very interesting field in itself. It fits with everything we know about climate denialism, about anti-vaccination attitudes, which primarily is this: That you can’t displace feelings with facts.
That’s a horrible thing for journalists to hear, because we’re in the business of offering people facts. But people aren’t empty vessels into which you pour information. People process information through the lens of their own personal identity, through their political identities, through what their communities are saying, through their sense of belonging with their friends and their families. Anything that we write and any information that we give is always going to be passed through the filter of those identities and those sort of cultural values.
And when your political identity, when your own community, when your friends and your family and your social networks are telling you, “This is a hoax, this is overblown, don’t trust experts,” all of that, of course you’re going to be swayed by that. Of course every new issue — whether it’s whether to wear a mask or not, whether to stay home or not — is going to be embroiled in those same cultural wars.
If all of this hadn’t happened in this administration, then sure you would have had some resistance. But I don’t think that it would have been as strong as what we have seen. I think the fact that we had Trump on TV or on Twitter every single day, stoking the fires of division, and emboldening those identities that then contributed to this kind of polarized perception, I think that made everything so much worse than it ever needed to be.
I do think, as a lot of people got personal experience with COVID, that changed. Not for Trump, obviously, and I think that didn’t help matters. Nor did it help that COVID is so varied — some people get it and are fine, and some people get it and die, and many people know folks on both sides of the spectrum. If you have, say, a rural, red-state community that has long thought of vaccines as a hoax, and then COVID sweeps that community, a lot of people are going to die, and a lot of people are suddenly going to change their minds. But a lot of folks are also going to know people who got the disease and were fine, and that is just going to concretize their views.
Even further, there are many different problems here. There’s the very human way in which we all deal with information. There’s the problem that stems from the Trump administration in particular, and for American society in particular. And then there’s the very, very varied and heterogeneous nature of this disease. All of which contribute to the very persistent and stagnant nature of some of these beliefs and misinformation.
Buckley: How do you deal with the decline in trust in expertise and institutions? Do you think about educating the public about these complex challenges and how they can’t seek technical solutions to adaptive public problems?
Yong: A lot of my work was trying to get at this. The pandemic is such a big problem — one that touches on so many different areas of society — that it is very difficult to wrap your head around it. You want to slip into nihilism and suggest to people that this is a problem that is too big to comprehend, it is a problem that is so big it is very difficult to comprehend. But it is our job to help people to do exactly that.
Part of the problem with the decline in trust in expertise and institutions is in trying to overly simplify things that are inherently not simple and incredibly complex. You need to offer people quick, sandbaggy things or concrete answers for questions that are still being argued over. And this goes back to what I was saying earlier about trying to get across the nature of uncertainty to people, to sort of delimit the edges of what we know and what we don’t know. I think that approach is much better at engendering trust than just saying, “Here’s the answer,” especially when we actually can’t confidently say that.
And I actually had a lot of reader feedback which suggested to me that this approach was working. I remember feedback from people saying, “Look, I didn’t understand so much about the pandemic: Why we were being asked to stay at home, why we were being asked to wear a mask, why we were being asked to do any of these things. Why this was such a complex problem, why a nation like America couldn’t seem to tackle it when a lot of other countries could.” And a lot of these people were saying, “The way you’ve walked through these problems in the pieces, the way you’ve dealt with matters of uncertainty, made me feel more confident than the analysis.”
That’s something I think about a lot — not trying to sort of perform confidence, but to try and engender it by actually being quite modest about what we know and work.
Buckley: Can you talk a little bit more about lessons that other kinds of journalists can take from your coverage of the pandemic?
Yong: It’s a slightly hard question for me to answer because I obviously haven’t worked in other beats except the one that I have experience with. It’s a little bit difficult to step into the shoes of someone who’s only covered politics or culture before and who asks how you deal with the pandemic.
I return to this idea about trying to grapple with uncertainty and trying to understand how much it is you don’t know. This is something that I actively try and do when I do reporting. I’m constantly trying to paraphrase what I’ve just heard to sources who’ve just explained something very complicated to me to try and see if I’ve actually got things right. I’ve asked people repeatedly, “What do other reporters get wrong about this specific thing?” to try and understand the mistakes that our profession makes. I did this with virologists. I did this with long-haulers. I’ve tried to ask sources, “What don’t we know? What would it take to make you change your mind? How confident are you on a scale of one to 10 of what you’ve just told me?”
All these kinds of questions really helped me. I’m not just coloring in my picture of the pandemic, but I’m also, through reporting, working out what the edges of that picture are, so I know how much I have left to color in. That’s crucial. It helped me not just to do the best work, but also to be more confident in the types of stories I’ve been doing, whether I’ve done enough reporting, whether I’m asking the right questions.
Buckley: That’s essential humility, Ed, that a lot of journalists don’t necessarily have. You called science not fact but rather the stumbling toward truth. Couldn’t we say the same about journalism? What parallels can we draw between trust and science to trust in responsible journalism?
Yong: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that the parallels are extremely deep and very useful. I know I’ve learned as much about being a good scientist through being a journalist as I did through the two aborted years that I spent as a wannabe Ph.D. student. I think that these two fields do have a lot to teach each other, like the nature of the means through which we inquire about the world, the drive to find out more, to kind of pierce the unknown and to understand more of the world around us. These are the things that drive a lot of us, whether it’s people who work in science or people who work in journalism.
Buckley: How might Poynter and other journalism leaders best assist newsrooms through the intensity of this work? What could you have used along the way?
Yong: A good question. I actually don’t know the answer to this, because I struggled until I stopped.
What could I have used along the way? Certainly the support of my newsroom made all of it possible, made it a lot better than it could have otherwise been. I had the privilege of working with fantastic editors, had support from the very highest levels of my newsroom, and honestly, without that, I would have broken well before December 2020.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hire good people and then to let them do the job that you hired them to do. That’s what The Atlantic did for me. They hired me in 2015 as a science reporter and encouraged me to pursue the stories that were meaningful to me. When I wanted to write a big feature about how we would fare in a pandemic at a time when there was no pandemic, my editor-in-chief went, “great!” and got me every resource possible to do that. And when an actual pandemic happened, they allowed me to do the kinds of stories that I wanted to do.
I had a few assignments but, in the main, it was just me and my direct editor trying to think about what the right ideas were. And that’s sort of how a lot of The Atlantic works, and I think that’s why we punched above our weight.
Let me get back to this issue of how newsrooms can help the mental health of their staff, because I think that this sort of touches on one of the questions that was asked earlier. A lot of our work as journalists is very, very focused on the present, and a lot of journalists end up being very fragmentary. We look at a big story and we pick off small angles, and we turn those into content, which we publish. But there is huge value in looking at the bigger picture, not picking off the small pieces, but trying to synthesize all of that for our readers. That’s the work that I’ve tried to do.
In some ways, I think magazine journalism gravitates towards that more easily because big magazine features are wider in scope, so they look naturally at a lot of different areas in the present, but they also look back in time and ahead to the future. So they’re wider both in the present but also temporally. I think that’s the kind of big, expansive journalism that made a difference to me in COVID and I that tried to produce during the pandemic. It’s something that we don’t often get training in, we don’t give each other the space to do, and we perhaps think that it doesn’t have a place in an age of short, sharp, punchy, clicky content. I think that the pandemic has just destroyed the latter idea for me. I think it just shows that there is a huge market for deep, broad, long, analytical, synthetic journalism.
And then the mental health question. I don’t know the answer to that other than to say that it mattered to me to be able to say, “I can’t do this anymore,” and it mattered even more for my bosses to say, “Then you should stop for a bit.” And that’s a rarity, right? Often, when people say, “I can’t do this anymore,” what we hear in return is, “Well, tough luck, journalism is meant to be hard, so get on with it.”
It’s not meant to be that hard. The work matters, but it doesn’t matter enough to break yourself in the doing of it. And I will be thankful to The Atlantic for a long time, not just for giving me the space to do this kind of work, but for them giving me the space to step away from it when I needed to.
Buckley: Great answer. Two more quick questions before we end. How does journalism account for the cumulative effect of our work? I’ve been listening to criticism that by focusing on the shortcomings of the vaccines we’re undermining the bigger message that the vaccines work.
Yong: Yeah, great question again. I think this feeds back to what I just talked about, about thinking bigger, about not just sort of taking this quite fragmentary approach to journalism, by picking off small angles, but always to try and embed the thing you’re writing about in the broader context. This is something I’ve always tried to do with science journalism, whether it’s to do with the defining questions of our generation, or something totally fun and throwaway. It’s always about trying to embed what is new in the context of what has been, trying to ground any particular small story in the much, much bigger picture and not losing sight of that.
Sure, you can talk about the shortcomings of a vaccine, an important thing to write about, but you can’t do that at the expense of all the other things that we need to know about the vaccines. The question is, what is the point of the story? Does the story exist because you needed to write a story? Or does the story exist because it is going to help people understand something about the world around them? And we need a lot more of the latter and a lot less of the former, I think.
Buckley: How did being a person of color affect how you covered the pandemic?
Yong: I feel lucky in that I was not personally subject to very much anti-Asian racism, which obviously was quite prominent early on in the pandemic, and a little bit lesser as it wore on. I have tried quite hard as my own stature as a journalist through all of 2020 to try and spend that earned social capital on other people, on other journalists, especially women and especially people of color, because both the areas I work in, journalism and science, are areas in which women, in which people of color, in which people from a lot of marginalized groups, have significant disadvantages.
For me, being a person of color covering COVID, I felt very lucky to be in a newsroom where I didn’t feel those disadvantages, where I didn’t feel like I was treated as less than I am, and where I was always encouraged to be as much as I could be. But I also recognize that there are a lot of newsrooms around where that is not the case, where people of color have had truly terrible times. It behooves all of us to try and push against that.
Like I said, I am very aware of the extra social capital that I’ve gained because of my reporting last year, and it’s meaningless to me if I don’t get to use that to uplift a ton of other people who aren’t in cushy jobs where they get supported in the kind of work that they do.
To be very earnest for a while, I think one of the lessons that COVID teaches us is that we’re all in this together, and that we can only address some of the biggest problems of our time by working together and by working as communities, by helping each other. And, certainly, racism, sexism, all forms of discrimination, are among the biggest problems of our time, and they require the same solution.
So I hope that all of us as journalists are working on that as much as we are working on producing the best possible pieces.