Caroline Chen speaks on “Public Health Reporting in a Pandemic of Disinformation” in McFarland Center Event

Devyn Forcina ‘22

News Editor

On March 1, the McFarland Center hosted Caroline Chen for a talk on “Public Health Reporting in a Pandemic of Disinformation.” Chen, an investigative reporter for ProPublica, has a background in health reporting, as she covered the Ebola outbreak in a previously held position at Bloomberg News. Over the course of her career, she has written about different angles of the healthcare system. Now, as she reports on COVID-19, she addresses the question: “what is a reporter’s job during a pandemic?”

Chen commented on how the daily duties of her job have changed during the pandemic. The inability to have face-to-face interviews has affected the writing processes of many reporters. “Man-on-the-street reporting” is no longer a feasible way to gather information in the COVID era. 

Furthermore, Chen elaborated, the ever-changing nature of the virus has made data somewhat unreliable, and thus inappropriate to print. As she described a story she wrote about CDC COVID tests, she said of the data: “It’s accurate now, but it might not be accurate by tomorrow morning.”

“You don’t want to lose the reader’s trust,” Chen explained, as she spoke more about disinformation during the pandemic. “Context really matters. You can be accurate at the sentence level but not at the story level.” 

Graphic by Hui Li ’21.

Especially in the COVID climate, it is essential that readers are supplied with accurate information, and have “ways to go to the original source.” To avoid spreading problematic conspiracies, Chen noted that reporters should be mindful of peer-reviewed scientific journals and that they should speak with scientists.

In the Q&A portion of the event, Chen responded to student inquiries about biases. She shared that she often asks her interviewees, “Who disagrees with you that you respect?” or “What would a criticism of your position be?” Asking these questions gives her “confidence that [she’s] not missing things.”

Chen was also asked a question about avoiding fear-mongering about the more troubling topics she reports on. Chen’s response was optimistic: “My hope for a lot of stories I’ve written is that people leave feeling smarter and more equipped.”

Chen concluded her talk by establishing that reporters can have “control over the narrative of the pandemic.” The recorded talk will be available on the College of the Holy Cross website’s page for McFarland Center events

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