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Polk Webinar Recap — An Award-Winning Dose of Truth on COVID

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

By REYNA IWAMOTO | Staff Writer

On Thursday April 8, LIU virtually hosted the George Polk Awards Webinar, where Polk winners David Culver, Helen Branswell and Ed Yong discussed the role of the press in the pandemic.

The virtual panel chronologically progressed through the course of the virus throughout the world, beginning with its origin as a “mysterious pneumonia” in China. On New Year's Eve 2019, Branswell of STAT tweeted about these ‘unexplained pneumonias’ in China and how the situation reminded herself of her own coverage of the SARS outbreak in 2003.

“I just knew that when you hear word from China that they see cases of pneumonia that they can’t diagnose, you have to take it seriously,” Branswell said. “Their surveillance systems are very good and if they didn't know what they were looking at, chances are it is something new.”

Culver, a CNN international correspondent based in Beijing, was in China during the beginning of the pandemic, covering its initial investigation in Wuhan before the city went into lockdown. Culver described the environment in Wuhan then, like that of when he covered hurricanes in the U.S. earlier in his career.

“It felt similar to getting there ahead of the hurricane, knowing something was coming, not knowing how strong it would be,” Culver said.

Following the spread of COVID-19 to America and as March represented the one-year mark since the first major wave in America, the panel then reviewed the country’s response to the surging pandemic that has now killed more than 500,000 Americans.

The Atlantic’s Yong discussed his work, particularly his article, How the Pandemic Defeated America, in which he compared countries’ expected performance and their actual response to the pandemic.

While the Global Health Security Index ranked the U.S. as the country most prepared to respond to a pandemic, Yong examined the correlation between the index and reality, analyzing the U.S.’s “underperformance against its resources and expectations.”

“Discussing a country’s capacity and capability, the U.S. had the capacity, but not necessarily the capability -- the on the ground experience -- unlike countries that have experience with things like SARS who used this to their advantage,” Yong said. “I think this shows that much of the world was unprepared and did not know they were unprepared.”

Although Trump was a central character, Yong said he deliberately wrote his article so that he was not at the core of COVID-19 in the U.S. and, “if we solely blame Trump, we are coming out of this with the wrong message.”

Yong said that in order to fully understand how COVID-19 impacted the U.S., one must understand all the factors that include the nation’s history of racism, the prison system, nursing homes, the duty of care to the vulnerable, and the social media platforms that allowed for misinformation to cascade.

The panel ended with a brief Q&A session with members of the audience. One participant inquired into the panelists’ personal lives, asking about the challenges of covering the pandemic and its effect on their mental health.

Culver discussed the interviews he had with people in China who have been affected by the virus, crying for the family members they lost, when he recalled a moment he broke down during an interview, calling it a “very human moment.”

One of the members of Culver’s production team suggested he take a step back and take time to process this himself. Despite his emotional connection to the COVID-19 victims and their loved ones, Culver said that such sensitivity is also a skill he uses to his advantage.

“Sometimes journalists want this approach to separate their emotions from their work. For me, this helps my storytelling — I need to tap into those emotions,” Culver said.

In retrospect, Branswell said she also had moments when she needed to take a step away from her constant focus on the virus.

“I had some days I had to reach out to my editor and say I wasn't functioning well that day, so they shouldn’t expect much work from me,” Branswell said.

Branswell said another challenge of covering COVID-19 was that the story was so large; it had an incredible amount of storylines. And that yielded the constant question of “what do I cover?”

“Some days I woke up feeling like an object of failure,” Branswell said. “I was asking myself why I didn’t write this or that. There was just so much to say, but it was so hard to reach people.”

Despite the obstacles of reporting during a pandemic, Branswell published a total of 147 stories covering the virus from January 2020 to January 2021, many of which she emphasized were co-written.

Branswell highlighted the efforts of her editorial team, while Culver and Yong also expressed their gratitude to their respective teams, especially fact-checkers, who helped them better inform the public.

“I am very grateful to The Atlantic for giving me the space and time for my work,” Yong said. “It is wonderful to receive these awards, but it was not all individual. I had immense support from editors and fact-checkers.”

While vaccination rollout expands across the globe, many already have the pandemic in their rear view as summer approaches. However, as variant strains of the virus spread rapidly, and the inequity of vaccinations continue to affect many, Branswell shared her insight into what life may look like in the fall. She noted that the world could be seeing a “fairly harsh flu season.” “It might be a rough period in the fall,” Branswell said. She also described the idea of vaccination documentation in the form of vaccine passports.

“Us being so individualistic and people disliking their liberties to be infringed, that's not playing out well here in the U.S., but I don’t know that it’s avoidable,” Branswell said.

According to Yong, even by the fall, the effects of the pandemic will not be over.

“Everything we have experienced will have lasting consequences on society and how we look at pandemics and the sheer degree of inequities for decades to come,” Yong said.

While the Polk Awards panel was held virtually due to the pandemic, Dr. Ralph Engelman, the faculty coordinator of the awards, shared hope that next year’s seminar (and luncheon) can be held in person, with the worst of the pandemic behind us.

The recording of the webinar can be found here.

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