Sophie Scott, National Medical Reporter for the ABC
Many Australian journalists have been put under the pump keeping up with the constant developments surrounding COVID-19 over the past two years, but few perhaps more so than Sophie Scott, National Medical Reporter for the ABC.
Sophie has been covering COVID across all the ABC’s platforms, including TV live crosses, explainers and written pieces, as well as providing content for foreign media such as the BBC. Despite having more than 20 years of medical reporting under her belt, she describes the experience as “full-on”.
“With COVID we were aiming to stay ahead of the game… So [we were] looking at what had happened overseas with COVID and sort of predicting what might happen here, and whether we were prepared for it,” she says.
“But also on the research side of things, just trying to stay across what the challenges were when it comes to dealing with a pandemic. There were new papers coming out everyday basically. So we would pick and choose the ones that we thought were the most important for the audience to hear about.
“I work with a team of producers [in the ABC”s Specialist Reporting Team] so having their help was a big help.”
Sophie says many of the COVID stories she covered were sourced through people contacting her directly via social media or email, such as healthcare workers reaching out to draw attention to issues accessing proper personal protective equipment (PPE).
For developments sourced through journals or medical papers, however, Sophie describes the challenge of covering the rapid research response to COVID globally.
“Normally research goes through a peer-review process... but with COVID things were just being uploaded and put out at a preprint [stage]. Which is good in some ways, and probably necessary in a situation like a pandemic so you could see what everyone is working on, but it's also a little bit tricky because research gets out into the public domain that hasn't had that level of oversight,” she says.
“So we'd be very careful not to overplay the importance of a preprint paper, and our preference was to cover published research.
“One of the things with the pandemic is that there was, and there still is, a lot of misinformation, and some of it was getting published in medical journals. So you sort of have to contend with that as well.”
Staying ahead of news developments is one thing, but Sophie says the nature of journalism means that it’s not just the news content that is constantly changing, but also the way she does her job.
“Even though the job title is the same, how you actually do the work really changes even from year to year,” she says.
“It's different this year to what it was last year in terms of the number of different platforms that we file for. It's a very evolving profession.”
Sophie is the author of two books, Live A Longer Life and Roadtesting Happiness — a personal account of her experiences trying different happiness ‘techniques’ developed by experts.
On top of her role at the ABC, she has also been establishing a large platform on Twitter and Instagram through her educational resources on mental health. Despite always having an interest in mental health as a journalist, Sophie says her recent work is motivated by growing levels of anxiety around the world.
“During the pandemic people were suffering a lot more anxiety, suffering a lot more stress, and I wanted to focus on that as well,” she says.
“It's just very helpful for people to have evidence-based things that they can use to try to manage their own anxiety and depression. Obviously people might need more one-on-one help and they need to go and get that, but just having some resources at your fingertips can make a difference as well. I think it's an important part of the education aspect of what I do.”
Of the wide range of mental health, COVID and other health related developments Sophie has reported on over the past few years, she says one that has particularly stuck with her was the story of Mackenzie Casella, who passed away at seven months old from spinal muscular atrophy type 1.
Following her death, Mackenzie's parents became big advocates for genetic testing, first sharing their story in interviews with Sophie in 2017, who reported several times on the progress of their successful campaign to secure funding for pre-pregnancy screening.
From November this year, Australians are now able to claim a Medicare rebate for genetic testing pre IVF implantation, thanks to funding dubbed “Mackenzie’s gift” by (out-going) Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Sophie described the experience of following the campaign as “amazing”.
“Things move quite slowly in medicine, so that was quite good to see things happen quite quickly,” she says.
“It's a good round [health reporting], I think often with patients they can be quite traumatised from what they've been through. But people are just very grateful and hopeful that by sharing their experience they can help other people, and that other people won't go through the pain that they went through, or the trauma they went through.
“All the people that I've dealt with have been amazing. Without the patients agreeing to tell their story, you don't really have a story.”
Sophie’s pitching preferences:
“[I want to see] a really clear explanation of why this story really matters, and that's often not in a press release. Often you have to ring up the person and ask them questions, but if you can explain why this story is important to the average Australian or to the person reading or watching, I think that's what people are interested in.
“Why does it matter? That's what I'm thinking when I'm looking at a pitch — I think 'how important is this? Why does it matter that people know about this or not? How significant is it? How big a development is it?'
“I think also these days the big thing that's changed is the storytelling and the human factor in stories. People are really drawn to learning from others' experiences, so now we always look for 'What's the human face that we can put to this story?'. Whereas previously we might have done more straight sort of stories about research, now it's like ‘who is this going to impact, and let's find that person’.”