Aviva Hope Rutkin ’12 is data editor at The Conversation US, a nonprofit news outlet. She oversees the production of charts and maps across its website, and edits stories about sociology, demography, big data and math. One of her recent pieces on COVID-19 appeared in National Geographic. Rutkin’s work has also been published in New Scientist, MIT Technology Review and BBC. She lives in Seattle, Wash. Follow her on Twitter @realavivahr.
On April 6, she talked about what it’s like to be a journalist in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of reporting on this pandemic?
A: The public is hungry for information about the coronavirus, and scientists are still learning about how this virus works and how COVID-19 can be treated. For science journalists like myself, there’s pressure to keep up with the pandemic as it evolves in real time. Between the moment that I have an idea for a story and the time that it publishes online, the number of cases will have increased, local or federal policies might have shifted, and new academic papers will have been published. We want to give people the most accurate information possible, and we need to make clear what’s known and what’s not known.
Q: What have you learned from writing about this virus and the people it affects that you haven’t put into your articles?
A: In early March, I interviewed the director of a local food bank and asked him how they were adapting to the pandemic. People in Seattle had started stocking up on nonperishables, so the food bank was having trouble sourcing some of their regular products, like canned tuna and cups of soup. He also told me that they were mixing homemade hand sanitizer, so that customers could wash their hands when they came in. Those details didn’t make it into my published piece. But that conversation was when the seriousness of the pandemic started to hit me. I realized that the story wasn’t only about the disease, but the knock-on effects for low-income Americans and people in particular occupations.
Q: How has your job changed? Are you analyzing different/more data? Are you changing the way you interview or report from the field?
A: Our focus has shifted tremendously. In February, I spent the majority of my time working on stories about the presidential election and the 2020 census. Now, everyone on staff is thinking about the coronavirus in one way or another. The pandemic touches all corners of the newsroom – not just the science desks, but also education, arts and culture, religion. Since I work from home, my daily routine is largely unchanged. My wife is a producer for KUOW, our local NPR station. She is classified by the state as an essential employee and still goes in to the station every day. She works on a daily local show that now devotes its entire hour to coronavirus coverage.
Q: Are you seeing any particularly interesting or notable trends emerge in the COVID-19 data?
A: This isn’t quite what you’re asking, but I’ve found it fascinating to learn more about outbreaks of the past. We’ve published a number of stories about the 1918 flu, which is one of the best analogues to what the U.S. is experiencing right now. Sports games were cancelled then, too, and many schools and churches closed. Restaurants were okay, “as long as they offered neither music nor dancing.” I’ve also been working on a story that looks at some of the biggest disease outbreaks in recorded history, going all the way back to the Antonine Plague of 165 A.D. At its height, it killed something like 2,000 Romans per day.
Q: The public can sometimes be suspicious of the media, of “fake news.” Do you think this sentiment is more or less pronounced now?
A: It’s a challenge. It’s something that we think about at work often. We ask all of our authors to fill out a disclosure form and to cite their sources. I think – at least, I hope – that transparency helps to build trust. Some other outlets, like the New York Times and ProPublica, will publish stories explaining how they did their reporting. In terms of this pandemic, I’ve noticed some positive changes on social media. When news breaks, misinformation can spread online really, really quickly. Sites like Google, YouTube and Twitter are explicitly directing people to reliable sources of coronavirus information. That’s an important difference. I’d also add that the problem is bigger than journalism. Americans report lower trust today in the federal government, and even in each other.
Q; Any tips for readers about how to know which sources of news are the most reliable and accurate?
A: Consider where the information is coming from. Are you familiar with the publication or website? Can you look up the writer online and learn more about his or her work? Are the numbers and facts linked back to the original sources? Is the story saying something wildly different from what other outlets are reporting? I would also double-check anything that seems spectacular. Photos are especially easy to fake or to use in a misleading way. Last year, we published a list of tips from Hany Farid, the author of Photo Forensics. My favorite is #4: Beware of sharks.
Q: The news these days can be overwhelming and frightening. Any advice for coping with the stress we each feel after scrolling through our news feeds?
A: I think it’s important to put boundaries up. For example, I don’t receive breaking news alerts on my phone. I try to carve out times in the day when I’m not allowed to read the news. It helps if I’m doing something active. Like many out there, I’ve been struggling to learn how to bake bread. I’d also say: Let yourself off the hook. There are a lot of stories out there right now encouraging people to use their time at home to be more productive or to pick up a new hobby. I admire people who can do that. I’ve read that William Shakespeare may have written “King Lear” while he was quarantined. But that’s Shakespeare. If you’ve spent your time at home eating chips and playing Animal Crossing, and that’s what helps you cope, that seems fine to me.
Q: You’re based in Seattle. Washington State saw some of the first serious coronavirus activity. What has this experience been like?
A: In a way, it’s like I’ve been living in the future. A few weeks ago, I was getting texts from friends and family, checking to see if we were O.K. and asking about what life was like here. Now, everyone is sharing our experience.