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Washington Post Reporter Talks 'Hair-on-Fire-Briefing,' Coronavirus Coverage at IOP Forum

Washington Post health reporter Lena H. Sun spoke about covering the coronavirus outbreak in an Institute of Politics forum Thursday.
Washington Post health reporter Lena H. Sun spoke about covering the coronavirus outbreak in an Institute of Politics forum Thursday. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Helen He and Alex M. Koller, Contributing Writers

Lena H. Sun, a national health reporter for the Washington Post, spoke about her experience covering the novel coronavirus outbreak during the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics’s third online “Fast Forum” Thursday evening.

Sun, who co-wrote the Washington Post’s first story on the coronavirus outbreak in January, contrasted the American news media’s current spotlight on COVID-19 with an initial lack of attention to the crisis as political controversies dominated headlines earlier this year.

But the Post’s focus changed, she said, with the surge in cases of the coronavirus in Italy and Iran — along with a “hair-on-fire” briefing by Nancy E. Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in February.

“Back in those days, we couldn’t get much attention for these stories because of impeachment and politics,” she said. “And I remember when I would be sending out emails asking for people to share the stories, we would ask, ‘Counter-programming note: Not a political story, not an impeachment story. Story about a virus.’”

The increasing demand for stories on the pandemic, coupled with the need to work remotely, has led to quick story turnarounds and increased collaboration between reporters, according to Sun.

“It is very rare that you will see just one solo byline, because people are reporting at the same time, or somebody might start reporting a story and the other person will start writing,” Sun said.

Sun said she was frustrated with the White House’s efforts to “control the message,” calling it the “biggest challenge” in reporting accurately on the constantly-evolving science behind the virus.

“Instead of a public health agency like the CDC giving regular briefings with data and science, you are getting bits and pieces of it during the White House briefing,” Sun said.

Amid reports of Asian Americans facing racism in light of the pandemic, Sun described a “disheartening” experience being called a racial epithet earlier this year and emphasized the importance of Asian American representation in the media.

She said she tries to do television or visual media-based interviews when possible.

“I think it’s important for people out there to say, ‘Oh look, there is somebody who looks Asian, who is a reporter covering this. She is like a science person,’” Sun said. “It really pisses me off when [President Trump] keeps talking about it as the ‘Chinese virus.’ It is so offensive.”

Despite uncertainty surrounding the future of the pandemic, Sun said she remains hopeful about the efficacy of social-distancing measures, pointing to lowered death projections in Washington state.

Still, she criticized the Trump Administration’s April 30 end date for federal social-distancing guidelines, which she said raises “false expectations.”

“It is not the date. It is the data,” Sun said. “And if the data is not there, people should not go out because you don’t want to have to have that second or third wave of this stuff.”

“You want to be able to have your classes in the fall in school, right?” she added.

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IOPHarvard Kennedy SchoolJournalismCoronavirus