It’s quite the time to be a health reporter, almost everyone in my life has remarked since I started on the beat for The Tyee seven weeks ago.
No one knows how true that is better than André Picard.
Picard has been reporting on health for the Globe and Mail for four decades. In this pandemic moment, he is one of the most prominent and trusted voices in Canadian media.
While life hasn’t changed much for him personally — “my friends would say I’ve been practising social distancing for 50 years,” he joked — he’s covering a health crisis for a public that’s hungry for informed reporting.
The Tyee snagged Picard before he sits down with the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti today at 10 a.m. PST for a live virtual talk on his work covering COVID-19 hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation. The talk will be archived and available to watch on the foundation’s website.
From our positions at either end of the experience spectrum, Picard and I discussed what makes health reporting like no other beat even in calmer times and what reporters new to the terrain need to remember about their work and their readers. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Moira Wyton: I’m in a similar position to a lot of reporters who are just coming on to the health beat or learning how health connects to our normal reporting. What do you see as health reporting’s unique challenge right now?
André Picard: Oh boy, where to start? I think the challenge is, with something that’s so sprawling, trying to make sense of it. We tend to get caught up in the numbers a lot, and the stats. And that’s probably the most difficult thing for journalists, when you’re new to it, is all the numbers and trying to figure out if they have any meaning or how meaningful they are.
What helps you to make sense of it all?
I’m a big reader. I read a lot of stuff and I try to find if there are contradictions. And ask if so, why? You come to have trusted sources, people who are experts you followed through the years who have been good and accurate in the past, and who don’t overstate things. And you come to trust certain people to help you figure out what matters and what doesn’t.
Building trust with sources and readers is a difficult thing, and right now even experienced journalists are kind of reluctant to make big assertions because they don’t want to make mistakes. How are you navigating being such a trusted voice right now?
I think you have to acknowledge uncertainty. There’s lots of uncertainty, and the stuff we do know, you have to amplify it. I always say that the most important words in medicine or in health care are “I don’t know.” We have to be unafraid to say we don’t know stuff. That’s not a bad thing, to not know, but it’s bad to not acknowledge it.
My alarm bell goes off when people state stuff with too much certainty. The Dr. Ozs of the world who say “Oh, this will cure this,” those are the ones you really have to avoid. And so anyone who speaks with absolute certainty is probably not a very good scientist, and we probably shouldn’t be writing about them.
You’ve written recently about everything we don’t know and everything our modelling doesn’t take into account or can’t help us know. What is the most difficult or frustrating part of reporting right now?
I think it’s always the unknown. It’s a time where people are really stressed, they really want some certainty. They want answers, and all we have are moving goalposts. The most frustrating for me is the people who say “Oh, you said this,” and I say “Yeah, that was in February, that’s a whole other world.” You have to change with the information and with the data, you have to adapt your views. The people who are rigid and never change their opinions I think get themselves in trouble.
You’ve been a first mover in advocating a lot of public health measures, often before governments have implemented them. I’m wondering about your connection to the public health system? Do you feel a responsibility to be a part of it? Or do you feel more removed and looking in?
I don’t feel part of it, because I think it’s not a good thing for a journalist to be too cozy with what they write about. I look at myself as an observer. I always say the most important people in my stories are not in my stories. I can give voice to people who can’t say things publicly that they want to say. So that’s my big advantage as a columnist, I can take these views of others that they’re afraid or unable to express, and I can express them bluntly, not with wishy-washy scientific language.
You seem to have a really compassionate and human approach to public health. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Well, I think ultimately health is about people. That’s what you have to focus on, you always have to remember who this is affecting. There’s all this data, all these numbers, but every one of those numbers is a person and is a family.
One of the big things that shaped the way I write is from when I started writing about health and started reading about AIDS. I wrote my first story about AIDS in 1981, before it was AIDS and back when it was called GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. And it was new, even more frightening than this pandemic, I have to say. When AIDS came along, there were no treatments, it was totally unknown and people were dying very, very quickly. Much like COVID in the early days, people died really fast and ugly deaths.
And I think I learned really early on that health reporting was about writing about people and their stories, and that these health stories are not just about the virus, they’re about discrimination. They’re about assumptions, and about how people are mistreated in society. All these things that had happened to gay men in the early ’80s are now happening to homeless people, to elderly or older people in institutional settings and to prisoners. All these same issues, you realize come back time and time again. I’ve seen them come and go over 40 years, but it’s always the same fundamental issues. Viruses and diseases hit the most vulnerable first. And we should learn from that. And when we don’t ever learn that lesson, it’s frustrating.
I’m curious about that frustration, and maybe it’s more an early-career concern. I was having a distance chat with my partner and my parents out in their yard the other day and an elderly neighbour walked by and basically said she thinks this is all a hoax and she’s not distancing whatsoever, although she kept her distance from us. And it was really disheartening. I’m wondering what helps you stay motivated or assured in your work when that frustration you mentioned comes up?
I think that stuff used to worry me a lot more than it does now. I am really fascinated by risk communication. And when you do that research, you realize that people don’t have those views because they’re stupid. It’s because they’re scared and it’s a way of coping.
I wrote a column early on about the parallels between our situation now and when people are told they have cancer. There are all kinds of different reactions. Some say it’s not true. Some break down, some are just like, “Whatever.” And it’s the same thing now on a societal scale. People have different ways of coping, so the person who’s saying to me, “Oh, this is all a hoax, I’m not going to do anything,” to me that’s just their way of expressing their fears. I don’t really fully believe they think that way.
The worst possible thing you can do in an epidemic or in a crisis is to dismiss people’s worries, no matter how ridiculous they seem. So I have time for people who listen to others with those kind of views and say, “I understand, but here’s what we know, here’s how I’m acting, and do what you want with the information.” But I don’t get overly worried about that stuff anymore.
You've been doing a lot of responding to the public’s questions on social media and in your columns. What’s coming up over and over again as a gap in public knowledge? Where have media failed to inform the public?
I’m always struck by how much people just really want basic information. I think we in the media forget that while I may sit here in front of my TV from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. watching every briefing, the vast majority of people don’t do that. People tune in and out at various points. Some people are just realizing there’s a pandemic now because it hasn’t affected them yet.
I think we have to not be afraid to repeat and bring back the basics time and time again. We kind of assume that everybody’s following this with a microscope, and they’re not. They want to know the basic stuff. Can I go for a run? Can I go to the park? Can my grandchildren visit me? I don’t think we do enough of that, and we don’t do it well enough. The rules are really confusing to people, especially in Canada, where the rules are different in every province, sometimes in every city. People want to do the right thing and they’re really frustrated.
What’s a major lesson you’ve learned the hard way, or most important thing you’d like reporters new to the health beat to know?
I think the most important thing is to realize that health care is not just about medicine, medicine is a very small part of it. It’s about a person’s income. It’s about having a roof over their heads. It’s about having food on the table. It's all those daily, seemingly banal things that really matter to our health a lot more than medicine. If you’re discriminated against in your daily life, that’s going to have way more impact on your health than whether someone can prescribe you a certain drug at a certain point. I’d like people to have much more of a big picture about what matters to our health, and it’s not just pills and surgeries. Those things are important, but they're important only after you’re sick.
We can do so much more health care to keep people healthy. And something like a pandemic is a real big reminder of that. The healthy people living in society who are privileged are going to come out of this smelling of roses as they always do, because they have they have the benefits, they have the income, they have the home, they have the social connections, and they’re going to bounce back. And the people who are at greatest risk are going to suffer the greatest harm.
What does a post-pandemic health-care system and social safety net look like to you?
The big unknown question is, are we going to learn lessons from this? Or are we just going to go back to what we did before? I’ve been doing this for four decades. It’s a real predictable cycle: a crisis comes along, we invest in public health, we all suddenly care for homeless people and the elderly. And then things get sorted, the economy picks up again, and we forget about it. We have massive cuts in public health, as we have in Canada — just months ago Ontario had massive cuts in public health. And then predictably, another crisis comes along.
I think there’s some real opportunities here to do things differently. I hope the bright side of this is that we really do take advantage of this crisis to do bold things and not just go back to the safe, not very effective way of doing health and social services.
So what I hope is that this one is so big and so devastating that we actually take advantage of the chance to change things, that we start asking really fundamental questions. Why do we have 400,000 senior citizens in warehouses, where they’re at risk and where many, but not all, of them have horrible lives? We’ve got this bailout with income for people who are not working. So essentially, it’s a basic income plan. Why not just do the full monty and have basic income? We’re housing homeless people during the crisis because it’s unsafe for them to be homeless. We’ve known for 100 years that the solution to homelessness is housing, so let’s finally do it.
Have you seen anything to indicate this will be different from those other crises?
I wish I could say yes, but no, I haven’t. I have some hope on the seniors’ care side, just because it’s so, so devastating. Eighty per cent of our deaths in Canada are people in institutional care. The lack of personal support workers for seniors has become finally obvious to people; it’s a chronic problem. I think if we at least come out of this paying a decent living wage to people who do really, really tough work, like personal support workers, if we stop building these huge institutions, and maybe start putting people in smaller nursing home facilities, I think those will be wins. They’re not going to be enough. But hopefully those will be some obvious wins.
There’s a lot of disruption in almost every sector, and the media industry is being hit really hard, even as we’re increasingly important to people’s daily health and safety. How do you think this crisis will impact trust in media? Could we see more dedicated health reporters in newsrooms after this?
This crisis has been good for making people realize the value of the media. Despite the loud minority of “fake news” people, I think overall people have recognized the value of media. Now the flip side, and I think the really depressing, dark side of it, is I think a lot of media are not going to survive this. They’re not going to come back as easily as an airline or other things because people just don’t see the value of buying a newspaper anymore when they get stuff online for free. So I would like to think there’s going to be a whole cadre of new health reporters out there, but I think there’s actually just going to be a lot fewer journalists, and a lot fewer media outlets unfortunately. That's going to be a devastating blow to the industry.
I want to end on a bit more of a personal note. How do you manage the stress of knowing your beat is so vital and your work is so widely read right now?
People always ask me, but my life has changed very little, to be honest. I’ve always tended to work at home and I work in a small office far away from my headquarters. I’m a big follower of the news and what I write is maybe getting more attention, but I sort of write the same things I always have. I think I’m an outlier in that the pandemic hasn’t changed my life that much. My friends would say that I’ve been practising social isolation for 50 years, so nothing has changed, but I don’t know about that.