Comment: How a health reporter cut through noise on omicron

A Washington Post reporter’s Facebook post — meant for familiy and friends — connected with many more.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

In late February 2020, the very last days of the “before times,” Dan Diamond flew to Arkansas for a reporting trip that wasn’t supposed to have anything to do with the coronavirus.

But since he was a health reporter and more aware than most people of the burgeoning pandemic, he wore a mask on the plane. That made him a figure of great curiosity for his seatmate, a beefy fellow resembling NFL coach Andy Reid, who eyed Diamond warily for much of the flight.

“You sick?” the man finally asked.

“Trying not to be,” the journalist responded.

And so it began. Since then, for Diamond, it’s been all covid all the time.

I talked this week with Diamond, who joined The Washington Post early this year from Politico, about his experience covering covid from the very beginning. I was intrigued after reading a Facebook post of his that went viral, a simple yet fact-packed message summarizing the knowledge and perspective that he’s been sharing with friends and family. (It has since been turned into a story that The Post published online Tuesday.) He wrote it partly to counter some misperceptions he kept seeing repeated on social media.

“Anyone who swears that omicron will *surely* lead to a mild case in a vaccinated person is over-promising,” Diamond wrote. There’s good reason to believe that might be the case, he added; but right now “we don’t have the data to know for sure.”

A few lines in particular got to me, such as this one: “Every expert I spoke to is cutting back on scheduled plans, and several urged: Don’t take risks that could land you in a doctor’s office or hospital emergency room at a moment when demand on our health care system is going to surge.”

And, although this next point was obvious, it prompted me to reconsider my own travel plans for Christmas, which involved flying out of New York City’s largest airport: “If you are passing through an airport or train station,” Diamond wrote, “you are undoubtedly being exposed to someone with omicron at this point.”

He also expressed his own exhaustion over the pandemic, and his dismay at having to again curtail activities he was just getting back to, including going to movies and having dinner with friends.

“I knew in posting it that it had the potential to get some eyeballs,” Diamond told me. Still, he was surprised to see how quickly and widely it circulated, with screenshots being shared on Instagram and Twitter by everyone from the editor of Teen Vogue to Piers Morgan.

The frustrating thing for Diamond about his post’s popularity? Literally all of the information he shared had already been well covered in multiple news stories, by The Washington Post and many other news organizations. But, apparently, it was the form of his Facebook message — and its conversational tone — that made a difference.

“It speaks to the power of ‘explainers’,” he said, referring to the journalistic genre that sets out to elucidate and synthesize rather than provide new information.

Diamond’s own experience covering covid began weeks before that masked plane ride to Arkansas. On Jan. 9, 2020, he wrote a tiny item, deep in a Politico newsletter, about a troubling virus that had surfaced in China. For almost two years since then, he’s been immersed in the coverage of what one of his editors has called an ongoing “news emergency.”

“I’m not a reporter who’s bored by the sameness,” he told me. A former health-care consultant who switched careers to become a journalist, Diamond has carved out a coverage area in government accountability. “There are infinite stories to tell about the virus, its impact, the science,” he said.

Yet it hovers over his off-hours. By Thanksgiving, he had became acutely aware of omicron and the way it would soon sweep through the United States. “I was the worst Thanksgiving Day guest possible,” he said. “My family was so cheery and I couldn’t enjoy it.” That feeling hasn’t changed.

“I’ve been glum since Thanksgiving,” he said. Now, “other people are catching up in their glumness.”

He’s also had the disturbing and frustrating experience of talking to a close elderly relative who resisted the vaccine, claiming an allergy. And he is well aware that there are huge swaths of the public who will remain unreached by his stories; no matter how factual, clear or important; because they already have their minds made up.

“It’s depressing,” he said. “I wish I had an answer.” Diamond makes a point of answering reader emails as politely as possible in an effort to win trust, one person at a time. Sometimes he feels like it seems to make a dent in the mistrust and hostility. I’ve had the same feeling now and then in my dealings with readers.

Journalism can only do so much, but it’s at least slightly comforting to know that factual information — whether in a social media post, a radio or TV report or a printed news story — can make a difference. And if it’s taken seriously, it can save lives.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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