Q&A: Betsy Ladyzhets

A conversation with the creator of the COVID-19 Data Dispatch.

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Despite the continued prevalence of COVID-19 and its effect on people worldwide, the global population, our understanding of the pandemic is limited by the amount of data available — and our grasp on the data itself.

Given her background in data journalism and coronavirus reporting, Betsy Ladyzhets launched the COVID-10 Data Dispatch, a publication that provides weekly updates on U.S. pandemic data. 

COVID isn’t over, and neither are the aftereffects — on Monday, Sep. 19, for example, the Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) Action Network and its supporters will host a protest in D.C. in support of action for people living with ME, Long COVID, and other chronic illnesses. And, as Ladyzhets shares, those individuals and Americans at large could benefit from more accessible COVID data.

This week, we talked to Ladyzhets about her inspiration for the Dispatch, the relationship between objectivity and health reporting, plus the importance of taking breaks.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

How did the COVID-19 Data Dispatch begin?

It’s hard to believe that it was now over two years ago, but it started in July of 2020. I was a few months into very intensely reporting on the pandemic, both at my day job — which, at the time, was as a data journalist at Stacker — and also as a volunteer at the COVID Tracking Project. 

I started to feel frustrated at the gaps between my knowledge as somebody who was very steeped in this topic, and what I saw among friends and family and broader discussion on Twitter. There was one specific instance that I wrote about when I was reflecting on this a while back, where the Department of Health and Human Services took over hospital data reporting from the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

It was a very technical data situation but the mainstream media misrepresented the situation to a point where I saw Twitter commentary saying, “Oh, my God, we’re losing all COVID data,” “Trump is doing this whole bad thing.” And I really wanted to step in and explain, “No, that’s not what’s happening. This is a complicated process, but you can understand it and see what’s going on.” 

That came out of my desire to be like, “I’m thinking about this all the time and I want to have an outlet to kind of explain it and to share with people who are not journalists, but also people who are journalists and who might be very overwhelmed in trying to do COVID coverage.” I have friends who are local reporters and I have friends who are science journalists, but aren’t data journalists, and I really wanted to bridge some of those gaps and make things a bit more accessible. 

How has your past experience influenced this work? 

I got started in journalism in college. I went into Barnard, which is one of the undergrad colleges affiliated with Columbia University, wanting to be an English major or a writer. Then I got involved with Bwog, which is a student news outlet there. That introduced me to that style of informal news writing, which obviously informs how I write the COVID-19 Data Dispatch.

Later, I ended up double-majoring in English and biology and realized I was not super interested in biology research. So, science writing seemed like a good fit, because I find it more interesting and fun to learn about different scientific topics and explain them rather than focus on one research project for several years. I have respect for the scientists who do that, but that sounds terrible to me. 

I got involved with data journalism almost by accident, because I got an internship at Stacker where I ended up working for about three years. I got introduced to working with data and thinking about different kinds of presentations of stories there.

The work you’re doing is incredibly important and appreciated, but could also be draining. How do you take care of yourself while running the Dispatch? 

It’s definitely an ongoing process, and I think I’ve gone through phases with it. When I first started the project, I was super excited to have people reading and sharing what I was doing. Then, I got to a point in spring of 2021 where I was working very intensely because I had the COVID Data Dispatch, I had my day job at Stacker, I had some volunteer work for the COVID Tracking Project, and I was also doing a bit of freelancing. 

I was like, “Oh my God, something needs to go because I don’t have weekends for myself and that sucks.” That informed my choice to leave my staff job and become a freelancer. Now I’m sort of in a hybrid role, because I work part-time at MuckRock, but I have a lot more flexibility, which can be helpful. 

I had a similar situation leading up to this summer where I was thinking, “Okay, I have a better schedule now than I did when I was doing three jobs at once,” but I felt like I was pulling teeth to get my newsletter out every week and I needed a few weeks to stop and reflect on what I was doing. My thinking was, I would rather preempt burnout than really burn out, which I think I did. 

I want to try to make things a little shorter and not kill myself to write something in a week or weekend where maybe there isn’t a ton of news to write about, which is happening more and more these days. We are in a phase of the pandemic where it’s less of a headline news item, even though, in my opinion, there’s still a lot to be writing about from week to week. 

I loved reading your piece about the precautions you took while taking a plane during a COVID surge, and it reminded me of conversations that happen around objectivity and health reporting. Has this impacted your work in any way?

It’s definitely something I think about, especially in some of the more informal conversations that happen around the COVID Data Dispatch. For so many people in my life I’m the “COVID person,” so I often have to frame things in a way that is not me giving medical advice, which I’m not qualified to do. It’s me saying, “Okay, here are some of the sources that I would look at if I was in your situation.” 

So, I almost find it more helpful to say, “This is what I’m doing,” than to say, “This is general guidance,” because, in that case, it’s really clear to people that this is coming from me, a science journalist who has more COVID expertise than the average person, but is still not Anthony Fauci or something.

Related to personal reporting or objectivity in journalism, I’d also share that one of the main things that I do outside of my work is in the activism space. I play in a marching band in New York that goes to protests and sometimes I go by myself to different marches. One of the times that I’ve gone most viral on Twitter recently was because of a thread that I posted about being arrested at a protest and being extremely concerned about the COVID protocols in a precinct where I was held for a few hours.

I had other journalist friends ask me why I chose to write that and be very public about it, but my picture on Twitter is me with my bass drum, so if you know what you’re looking for it’s clear that I’m not making this a secret. In my writing, and in the COVID Data Dispatch, I feel that it’s important to make those connections and to not hide when you have a perspective, because I think that it can be helpful for your reporting. 

I also wouldn’t hide the fact that I want to see more support for Long COVID patients and for more research. I can’t be biased about those things. One thing that I enjoy about being a freelancer and having some flexibility is that if there are editors who don’t want to work with me for that reason, then that’s fine, I can work with other editors. 

You also have some great resources on the website, which I hope readers will check out. What advice would you offer to journalists or newsrooms who want to do more reporting on COVID or improve their coverage? 

I think that looking at local sources, whether that is a local public health department’s dashboard or talking to doctors who are in your community, is really, really helpful. I think this phase of the pandemic we’re in is not really being talked about and it’s not really understood that COVID is still happening and is still a public health crisis. 

I also think you can show that without hitting people over the head with it. There are polls that come out and are shared in lefty circles which show that people are still happy to mask when there’s a surge, but if they don’t know that there’s a surge they’re not going to do it, even if maybe they would be fine doing it. I think finding ways to continue regular coverage without it being super overwhelming is valuable, and that’s what I tried to do. 

I also take so many cues from Long COVID patients, chronically ill, and immunocompromised folks, who I know personally and who I follow online, because I know that people who are high risk are going to be doing everything they can and are going to be up on the latest research and tools.

This piece was edited by Omar S. Rashad.

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