The Atlantic’s science writer Ed Yong wrote a feature in 2018 with the headline, “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?” The answer gleaned from the 8,600 word piece was more or less “no.”
Two years later, as the coronavirus pandemic tears through the US, Yong continues to explore the consequences of that lack of preparedness. His recent work is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the crisis.
Since March, Yong has written 13 stories about the pandemic for The Atlantic. Several showcase his ability to stay one step ahead of the curve while others aim to combat the spread of misinformation. In “The Pandemic Experts Are Not Okay,” he wrote about public health experts who are at risk of burning out — something he is personally dealing with.
Yong’s latest piece “How The Pandemic Defeated America” will be one of two stories featured on the cover The Atlantic’s September issue. The other, “The Power of American Denial,” was written by author and contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi. Yong spoke with CNN Business ahead of its publication on Monday about his reporting process.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Many journalists have lauded The Atlantic for its pandemic coverage. What’s the secret?
Our editor in chief, Jeff [Goldberg], has long said something like, “People don’t come to The Atlantic to read the news. They come to learn how to think about the news.” That idea has informed so much of our coverage choices before the pandemic and now during it.
I think of the information around the pandemic as rapids, really fast flowing torrential water. It’s so easy to be swept up in it and feel like you’re being carried along, feeling like you’re drowning in it. What I think really good journalism can do is to act as a rock in the middle of that fast flow to give people stable ground where they can stand and observe what is moving past them without being carried along by it.
As you accurately wrote in 2018, the US was not ready for pandemic. What else aren’t we ready for? What’s next?
Absolutely no one wants to hear this, but I wrote a piece recently about how we need to actually be prepared for what happens if we have another pandemic on top of this. That’s a question I actually asked myself in March and sort of dismissed on the grounds of but surely that’s ridiculous. We are experiencing this generation-defining crisis, so there’s sort of a sense that we’ve maxed out on bad luck, that we only deserve one of these in a lifetime. But the odds of other emerging diseases happening, the odds of hurricanes happening and other natural disasters, those aren’t lower because we are in the middle of the pandemic. In some cases, they’re actually higher.
In some ways, the pandemic should be a wake up call. We have built a world that is very vulnerable and lacking in resilience and unable to deal with these big challenges. We cannot just continue in the same ways that we have been. This could be a chance to build a better world.
You said in this new story you’ve spoken with 100 experts. Did you know most of these people prior to March?
The vast majority of those sources I did not know before 2020. There’s a few things there. Firstly, this is not just a science story and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. There’s a huge sociological component like the health inequalities, the ways in which poverty and racism and discrimination have collided to mean that certain communities — Black and Brown and indigenous and disabled and elderly and poor people — have been disproportionately hit by this virus.
That is something that I didn’t talk about at all in the 2018 piece, and now it seems like a glaring gap in hindsight, and it’s something I’ve specifically tried to address.
Are there people you talk to weekly or daily?
I don’t think there’s anyone who I have quoted in more than three stories. Most people have been quoted in just one story. Several people I’ve talked to a few times over. I want to be very mindful about people’s time. Even in good times, it’s sometimes truly shocking to me how much time researchers and academics are willing to give reporters. I’m exceptionally blown away by that generosity of time right now. People who are working day in and day out, like I am, to fight this thing are still happy to hop on the phone for half an hour, an hour of their time and share their expertise.
Are you reading a lot of academic research?
I’m reading a reasonable number of papers. Part of my training as a science journalist is to understand that the published scientific literature should not be taken as gospel. These papers, even those that have been through peer review, shouldn’t just be taken for granted. The science journalists I respect the most are the ones who are good at this and understand that the job is not just to say what these papers are showing, but to actually work up whether they’re true or not.
You can get quite a lot of that analysis on Twitter because there is a massive, very vocal, very engaged community of researchers who are all talking constantly about what’s new and what’s coming out.
Are there other journalists who you think are covering the pandemic particularly well?
A ton of names spring readily to mind. Helen Branswell at STAT is surely among the most respected journalists on the infectious disease beat. She’s just extraordinary. Roxanne Khamsi has been doing some really great work. It is definitely easier for someone like me with a cushy staff job to do big sweeping pieces. It’s much, much harder for a freelancer to do that, but Roxanne is doing that.
Caroline Chen at ProPublica has been doing some great work. Apoorva Mandavilli who recently joined The Times has been on an absolute streak throughout the pandemic but particularly as of late. Maggie Koerth at FiveThirtyEight has really thoughtful explanatory work, such a distinctive voice. Stephanie Lee at BuzzFeed has done incredible investigate work on bad science.
In your latest piece, you explore the role of social media and misinformation in this crisis. What role do you think conservative media has played in all of that?
In a crisis like this, it is so important for people to get clear, evidence-based, consistent messaging. You could argue about successes and failures to do that across the board. But I think the fact that we have media channels with massive audiences that are consistently saying the wrong things is inevitably a huge problem. Initially, it contributes to laxity. The fact that a lot of those outlets were severely downplaying the threat of the pandemic, even at a point when it was clear that this was going to be a disaster, helps to fuel reticence of action at a time when people really needed to be acting. It sows division. It sows distrust in expertise.
How has this coverage and reporting been affecting you personally? Last time we talked, you said you paused your book leave to return to coverage at The Atlantic.
I realized this morning that this would have been the last week of my book leave. I’ve actually just come back from a much needed week off where I completely unplugged. So I’m in a much better position. I want to be clear here that I have it a lot better than a lot of folks. There’s a lot to be grateful for, and I’m aware of a lot of privileges that I’m still enjoying throughout all of this.
The specific way in which it’s been hard is that is you can’t report on this without being completely immersed in it. To go back to the rapids analogy, I am trying to build a rock for everyone else to stand on while also being swept away myself all the time.
It is very hard to write pieces that try to jump ahead a couple of months and try to show people what might happen in the future and to actually see that play out again and again. I have never worked so hard to be right while also desperately hoping to be wrong.
Any idea on when you’ll return to book leave?
I had a discussion with my editors about possibly pivoting back towards the end of the year. When we start getting closer to the election or in the midst of it, when the main story at the time pivots to something that isn’t the pandemic, maybe this is a time where I can sort of quietly sneak offstage for a bit. I think it all depends on what the next few months will bring.