• Journalist icon Judy Woodruff said reporters have had to quickly become mini-experts on COVID.
  • Politicizing the pandemic has fueled COVID confusion about where to find trusted information.
  • Social media's immediacy shifted traditional media deadlines and "turned everything we do upside down," says PBS NewsHour anchor.

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE: Hi, everyone. You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical officer at WebMD. We have a very special episode today. It's not often that you're joined by a journalist icon, Judy Woodruff. She's been covering politics and news for over three decades. She's the winner of numerous awards, including the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award, and she's the anchor and Managing Editor of PBS NewsHour. Judy, thanks for joining me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It's great to be with you, John. I'm really, uh, pleased to be here, trying to mute all the other sounds in my house right now.

JOHN WHYTE: You're doing great. Well, let's start off with what's the role of PBS News Hour in the context of covering this pandemic?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I'm--I'm so happy to start with that question because the NewsHour has been my home since 2007, uh, in this iteration. I actually was with the NewsHour for a decade before that, so a number of years with this program that I have a great affection for.

I would say initially, I mean, our mission, uh, even before the pandemic has been to focus on, to shine a light on the most important issues and developments of our time. And with COVID and all that it's wrought, uh, we've tried to-- to be aware and to think constantly in-- in terms of informing the American people.

And I should just add, John, to-- to respond to what people tell us they want to know, we are-- we are much more interactive as a news organization than we've ever been. And that-- that has become a huge part of what we do.

JOHN WHYTE: Do you think it's harder to cover health and science topics than it is to cover politics? We have a whole new parlance. We're talking antibodies, Rho, transmissibility. These are not words that people use in their everyday language. And you know, despite all the different platforms, it-- it's hard to communicate science at times. Or do you think there's something else going on in terms of getting the public's attention?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there's certainly been a challenge. I mean, we've all had to ramp up quickly our-- our own-- our personal store of knowledge on this. We've turned to our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, who already had great sources in the-- in the-- in the health-- in the medical community. Um, but we've all had to become, if you will, mini-experts on this because it is a-- such an important subject for the American people.

So, um, I don't know that it's interesting that you make the comparison with politics. I like to think of science and-- and medicine and health care as issues, uh, that you can quantify. You know, there's a database of facts and of information. And we can turn to that database. We can look to science. We can look to the people who are doing the research and say, all right, what do you have here? What does the data show?

Whereas in politics, as you know very well, it's become much more polarized, uh, arguably two or three different versions of facts on any development you can name. So politics-- I would say political coverage has become more and more challenging for us. And the--the-- in a way, the nice thing about covering health and medicine is that we can ask a doctor, all right, how many-- you know, how many people have this symptom? How many don't? Um, we can get-- get some real answers.

JOHN WHYTE: But you know, Dr. Fauci has talked about there's this distrust, it seems, nowadays of science that, you know, maybe we didn't have, you know, 10 years ago. Do--do you think that's accurate?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think, to some extent, it is the case that this pandemic has become politicized in this country. I mean, from the standpoint of the Trump Administration, uh, where the president has argued just in recent days that 99% of the COVID cases are not serious, I think, uh, we-- you know, just from looking at the research that that is not the case. Um, we certainly would love for it to be the case. We'd love it if 99% of the people who contract COVID, uh, don't have a serious case. We know that more-- a larger percentage than that end up in the hospital. Um, and in fact, the numbers are going up right now.

But it has become politicized, and I think people who-- who don't want COVID to be here-- nobody wants it to be here-- but for folks who find it, uh, politically inconvenient, for whatever reason, to talk about it or to acknowledge it, it's become-- you know, it's become an argument that's made. Well, we will play it down. We won't-- we won't talk about how serious it is. And I think that's really, really unfortunate.

And--and you know, you mentioned, you know, what's-- who can trust what information. The wearing of masks has become political. Some people, uh, are saying, you don't really need to wear masks, or only wear them if you feel like it, whereas we're hearing from medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci that we all should wear masks when we're out in public, when we're anywhere within, uh, six feet of anybody, or even--

JOHN WHYTE: So how do you address that? How do you, you know, manage that in terms of whether everyone wants to be their own expert, or then it becomes how do we communicate that information better to viewers?

JUDY WOODRUFF: We try to talk to the scientists. I mean, for example, we've had Dr. Fauci several times. We expect to be interviewing him again in coming days. On the News Hour we've interviewed other epidemiologists, other health care, um, uh, experts, people who are experts in infectious diseases, and talk to them about why masks are important.

We know the science around masks has evolved during this pandemic. Initially, uh, the-- the word was that, well, we need to save the scarce masks that we have for front line workers, and that was understandable. But now we're at a point where there are more masks available, and--and the advice is that everybody should be wearing a mask.

But we are constantly going back to the experts, to the scientists, and checking in with them because we think it's so important to get the facts out there to the American people.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to ask you about there's been some criticism that the media coverage of COVID has been all doom and gloom and hasn't been the complete story of cases of survival. Is that a valid criticism, too much doom and gloom?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, first of all, this is a terrible pandemic. We haven't seen anything like it in, uh, 100 years. So we are facing a-- a serious health crisis in this country. It's taken, as you know, on the day we're speaking, 130,000 American lives. So it is serious. And we think it's important to focus on, uh, the effects that it's having on people so that people are aware and they're doing everything they possibly can to avoid getting it.

At the same time, though, John, we've also, uh, on practically every day, tried to have an uplifting look at what people are doing to work around this, to work through it, and to make the best of it. I mean, we have done stories about people who are volunteering their time to make masks, who are--are delivering food to people right now because they've lost their job. I mean, we've-- we're also in the middle of an economic crisis, as you know.

Uh, families that don't have income. We've focused on a number of the people who are-- I think you could call them the heroes of this-- of this, uh-- of this pandemic. So we are very aware of not wanting people to just give up, be depressed, be discouraged. It's important that we all keep going because at some point, we will get past this. There's no question. This is not the end of the United States. We're going to keep going. We're going to get through it.

Uh, so we think it's important to do both, to give people the accurate, straight information, but also to give them, uh, the story of, uh-- stories of success and story of the heroes in our midst.

JOHN WHYTE: You talked about engagement with viewers on other platforms. You're on Twitter @JudyWoodruff. Not hard to remember. And I noted that, uh, you joined early on. It says in 2009, before, maybe, Twitter was popular. What's the role of social media platforms like Twitter in reporting the news?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Social media has completely turned what we do upside down. I mean, there-- when I-- when I started reporting, we had a 6:00 deadline in the evening and an 11:00 deadline in the evening, and sometimes a morning, uh, uh, deadline for a morning show. And that was it. And then, of course, today it's every second. I mean, if something happens while I'm talking to you, um, I-- I need to think about covering that. I need to think about whether the NewsHour's on top of it, whether my colleagues are-- are following it.

It's just we are in a different world right now. People have information coming at them 24/7, uh, every second of their waking lives. Reporters today, I would argue-- I covered the White House several decades ago. Today, White House reporters, I don't think they can sleep.

I mean, my colleague Yamiche Alcindor, who covers the White House for us, I've told Yamiche, I said, I don't know when you sleep because from the minute you put your head on the pillow until the minute you--you know, I'm sure, like a bolt of lightning, jump out of bed the next morning, um, you don't know what's happening. You have to be on top of it all. You've got to be able to-- to understand it, to explain it, to get to your sources, and to make sure the American people get the straight story.

And that's not just the White House. It's every beat. It's-- today. It's whether you're covering China or you're covering the economy or you're covering education. Right now there's a big debate, as you know, about when schools should open, and whether-- whether and how they should open. So there are just-- there are just so many stories like that that we have a responsibility to stay on top of.

And social media adds to the pressure and reminds us, by the way, that we can't make mistakes. We hate to make mistakes. But when the pressure's on, as it is, the chances of making a mistake are greater than ever. So we have to be even more careful than-- than we've ever been.

JOHN WHYTE: In your career, any other story like COVID that you've experienced in terms of its impact, its scope, its constantly changing information?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing like this. I mean, I-- I've covered-- I covered 9/11. I was there. I mean, there are certainly moments that stand out in my life. Every political campaign. I was there the day President Reagan was shot in March of 1981. Um, so there are moments that stand out that are sort of embedded in my brain. But nothing that's been this painful to watch and that has gone on as long as it has.

I mean, again, to think 130,000 Americans have died from this and that many more have been terribly sick. Um, we-- we haven't seen anything like it. And you know, we count up how many people died in the war in Vietnam, and many people died in Afghanistan, troops died in Afghanistan or Iraq. The numbers today are-- are way beyond that. I mean, we're comparing now to-- to the world wars. And, um, it's-- it's sobering. It's sobering.

JOHN WHYTE: What are you hopeful about, Judy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm hopeful about the American people. It's-- it's the stories that we try to tell of ordinary Americans who get up every morning and decide they're going to do something to help their own family, to help their friends, to help their neighbors, who get up and go volunteer. Uh, as I mentioned, they're volunteering to deliver food. They're volunteering to work with children.

I'm hopeful because of front line workers, the nurses, the doctors, the, um, educators, the--the people who deliver food to those folks who don't want to go to the grocery store. Um, the folks who empty our trash, who are cleaning our offices, who are cleaning our-- our-- our apartment buildings, um, and our street.

It's people like that who we've never heard of before. We don't think about them. And yet they are the fabric that holds this country together, and they're the reason we're going to get through this. The American people have grit and determination, and, uh, we're going to wear our masks when we go out, and we're going to do everything we can, uh, to keep this country going.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Judy Woodruff, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. Thank you for all you're doing in helping to keep us informed. You are an icon. I--I know folks that are icons always are embarrassed by other people calling them icons. But you really have transformed how we think about politics, how we think about news. And, uh, thank you for all that you're doing in making sure that we get the best information to people to impact their lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's very, very generous of you, John. Thank you so much. And the credit-- I give so much of the credit to my amazing colleagues at the--at the--at the NewsHour. But thank you so much. I love being with you.