Keren Landman on Covering COVID-19
and the big career change everyone finally stopped questioning.
Keeping up with the swirl of data, opinion, and politics in the coverage of COVID-19 is a dizzying experience for all of us. But high-quality journalism is still breaking through and making a real difference out there. Thank goodness for writers like Keren Landman.
Keren, a journalist who also just so happens to be a physician specializing in infectious diseases, has been working through the thick of it. And I’ve been observing, wide-eyed, as she publishes article after article about the pandemic and related issues. Her coverage is rooted in a deep understanding of the science at play, but with real people and solutions shining through.
So I caught up with Keren on what it’s been like to have her expertise become so urgently needed, and how solutions journalism has become kind of a religion that allows her to keep the faith in the written word. Writers, meet Keren!
Keren Landman on solutions journalism and the career change everyone finally stopped questioning
BR: So you've had a pretty unique path to journalism. Can you give us a brief overview of that path from physician to award-winning journalist? Starting with what prompted you to venture into writing?
KL: I always wanted to be a journalist, but never pursued writing or journalism as a primary career because I consistently received the message that it wasn't practical to do that. So I went down this other route instead, and found that I was constantly looking for ways to both express myself and to express to other people the complexities of what was going on in health and medicine: I had a radio show early in medical school, then blogged pretty regularly during a research year later in medical school and during most of my internship and residency. By the end of residency, I even had a book deal on the basis of one of those blogs. That fell apart in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, which was a real blow to my writerly identity -- it felt like I had completely lost my voice.
A few years later, while I was working as a medical epidemiologist (first during the “disease detective” Epidemic Intelligence Service program at the CDC, then at the New York City Health Department), I found myself seeking out and really relishing every opportunity I had to communicate with the public through the media. In 2015, I finally realized that if I didn't take writing and journalism seriously, I would forever be wishing I had. So I signed up for a 10-month low-residency journalism program at the University of Toronto, and have been combining freelance journalism and clinical medicine ever since.
What was it like when your knowledge of epidemiology suddenly became SO urgently relevant in the world?
It was great! I feel like I've spent several years justifying my career pivot to people on all sides of me professionally and sometimes personally: people wonder why I would turn away from a career that's traditionally high-income and high-respect and instead choose a path that requires constant hustle, doesn't reliably pay well, and seems to earn more derision that anything. Early in the pandemic, it became clear that suddenly, no part of my training was irrelevant to what I do. When trying to help people understand the significance of really scary medical news, it’s incredibly helpful to have a public health background and a clinical medicine background and a journalism background. For one brief shining moment, none of it felt like very financially and personally expensive over-qualification.
Have you learned anything unexpected about writing or publishing since the start of COVID-19?
I've learned that I can source and write stories a lot faster than I thought I could, especially when they are on my beat. There were a few weeks where I would start reporting a 1,500-word story at 8 in the morning and be done writing it after lunch. I realized I knew who to call, I knew they would call me back, and I knew how to structure the story before I'd even typed a word.
You've mentioned that you don't pitch very often these days. What do you think was key in getting to that place where you're not constantly gambling on the pitch game and can instead count on editors to come to you?
I had a couple of good editor relationships before COVID-19 started. One of those editors reached out to me early on and asked if I would do a quick explainer, and that turned into regular work pretty quickly. In another case, I reached out to an editor I'd worked with quite a bit on other stories and said, “You know I am literally an infectious disease doctor and medical epidemiologist, right? So if you have any work you want to assign on this DEVELOPING INFECTIOUS DISEASE PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER, I'm happy to help.” (I didn’t use exactly that phrasing in my email.) I've been assigned a lot of work by that outlet, and they've also taken one or two pitches during this time.
All that said, I have to recognize this situation isn't going to last forever, and I need to retain my hustle skills and build/maintain editor relationships. Also, when you are exclusively writing about ideas that other people came up with, your own ideas and your own priorities for the work you want to make fall back -- and it's not like people have been assigning me big-idea stories. So one thing I’ve really struggled with is saying no to those smaller assignments so that I can cultivate a few bigger ideas and develop them into the stories they deserve to be. I’m doing that now, and it feels good.
You have been so on top of the news about COVID-19. As someone who doesn't really cover breaking news (or anything that needs to be written in less than a week) I'm so impressed by the ability to see those stories and cover them before everyone else. Is there one tool, resource, or just a general tip you have for writers who want to get into newsier subject matter?
First of all, that’s nice of you to say -- thank you. Some of those stories came out of editors’ brains, so I don't deserve credit for generating all of them. When I do get to a bit of news early, it's probably because I checked in with a source and asked them what important patterns they're seeing that haven't been broadly reported yet.
Also, because I'm still on staff at a local clinic and might get called up to work there, I need to keep myself up-to-date clinically -- so I'm also on a bunch of healthcare-specific social media groups where people are talking about what's going on in the clinical world, and I go to lots of webinars on developing issues related to COVID-19. So I often hear about things that way, either from presenters or from people asking questions in the audience. Also, friends and former colleagues from the clinical or public health world sometimes reach out to ask if I’ve heard anything about specific issues.
All of these inputs shape the way I think -- although because I’m not in most of those spaces as press, it can be tricky in those situations to draw a boundary between my doctor self and my journalist self, and to do right by the other people in those spaces. In fact, there were a bunch of stories that I didn’t break early on because although I knew they were important stories, I didn't know how to pitch them without violating the trust of a group I was in. Those are moments when I really wish I were on staff somewhere so I had a regular editor to help me negotiate this very uneven ground.
Tell us about how the idea for this story for Undark came about. How did you decide to pursue this particular angle and what was the pitch process like?
This came out of something someone posted in one of those groups. I’ve belonged to this group for a couple of years. In it, a healthcare provider in a rural area posted about how proud they were that their local public health leaders had built the evidence base necessary to generate a mandate for a shutdown before the rest of Georgia did. (This was in the very early days of the pandemic, when we were just beginning to see that making decisions about staying open or closing down were being heavily politicized.) I am particularly drawn to counterintuitive stories about the rural South -- stories that show how many smart, caring people are actually in those places rather than affirming the usual narrative that they’re all run by people motivated by white supremacist ideology. So that's a story I really wanted to tell -- namely, how does a solidly red area make a decision that is safest for its residents but that ultimately contradicts its state’s solidly red governor?
I private-messaged the healthcare provider who’d posted about the issue, introducing myself as both a healthcare provider and a journalist. I explained the significance of the story within a national context and the angle that I would plan to take if I were to tell it, and asked if it was okay for me to pursue the story. They were in agreement, and ultimately introduced me to many of the primary sources I used.
How did the final product compare to what you had in mind when you pitched it?
There was always the possibility that I might find something in my reporting that contravened the narrative this person was putting forth, and I of course had to stay open to that. But in my reporting, I found what I sort of expected I would find: in crisis, these local leaders had really tried hard to put politics aside to do what was best for their community.
I think that's actually happening a lot more than we realize, but those stories are drowned out by stories about politics winning over public health at state and federal levels. And those stories are deeply important, too -- but if you want to think about journalism as a way to highlight the ways in which problems can be solved, those solutions are often happening on a local level, where leaders are held accountable daily by the people they serve in the grocery store or when they’re mowing the lawn or in their faith communities. Telling those stories isn't just mining for “good news” -- it's reflecting the messy reality of modern life, where narratives are way more complex than the biggest headlines would make you think they are.
You're also a mentor for Solutions Journalism. What's that work been like?
I'm too new to journalism to be burned out on it, but I've been reading the news long enough to understand that the media really shapes the way we think about the world. Finding solutions journalism was like opening a window in a dark room. It feels like a way out of so many problems—not just media problems, but social problems. The stories we tell are so powerful, and learning to tell really good stories about what's working feels like gaining a superpower. So helping other people—especially young people, like the teen journalists I mentor at VOX ATL—see that you can be an agent for positive change as a journalist, and helping them understand the specific things you need to do to make good solutions journalism, feels like saving souls. I honestly imagine this is what Evangelical Christians feel like when they're spreading the good news.
How can we all push for more solutions-based journalism? Because I want to read more of it.
If you're a journalist, learn to find, source, write, and pitch solution stories (you can do that at the Solutions Journalism Network website; membership and access to all of its learning materials is free). Ask your editors if they've considered doing some regular solutions coverage of an issue within your beat, and suggest a few potential angles. (If you need backup to explain how solutions coverage translates into bigger audiences for news outlets, there's a lot of that on the Solutions Journalism Network’s Medium blog.) And as a reader, you can write letters to the editors of publications you like asking them to turn a solutions lens on a story that you think needs it—particularly if you see that story as having done harm to a vulnerable community.
I feel like I should be clear that although I've gotten project grants from the Solutions Journalism Network, I am not a paid spokesperson for the organization. My fervor for this kind of journalism is all organic, born of the sense that if there’s any positive role for media in shaping the future, this is it.
What's one piece of writing you're super proud of (other than the one I mentioned) and why?
I'm really proud of this op-ed I wrote for the New York Times about Georgia's governor's decision to reopen the state in late April. It was assigned as a snapshot of the political environment surrounding that decision, and I don't really think of myself as a political journalist.
I got the assignment on a Friday and I spent the whole weekend on the phone with people all around Georgia, trying to understand how this decision was playing out in their communities. The story was due Tuesday; when I actually sat down to write on Monday morning, I had no idea what to do with everything I'd learned. I finally figured out the framework for it in the shower during the wee hours of Tuesday morning—I’d had to pull an all-nighter. And in order to create that framework I needed, I had to define politics in such a way that I, a health journalist, could convincingly write about it. (For the record, I define politics as the product of decision-making that prioritizes the appearance of a decision to certain stakeholders over the evidence that it will do the greatest public good.) Writing that story was a huge growth process for me and made me feel like yeah, maybe I am qualified to put other lenses on public health stories even if I'm not trained in those particular lenses—as long as I do the reporting to make sure I've got the story right.
Paid subscribers, I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday with lots of writing opportunities!