Knight Science Journalism Fellow, ’14-15
Kathleen McLaughlin is a journalist based in Beijing, China, who writes for The Economist, The Guardian, and numerous other media outlets. She has reported across Asia and East Africa on science and medical issues, including the legacy of China’s plasma industry and resulting AIDS epidemic, China’s influence on health care in Africa and counterfeit malaria drugs and the spread of drug-resistant malaria in Asia and Africa.
What is the one story you would like to be covering if you weren’t a KSJ Fellow this year?
The Ebola epidemic. I think there's a massive opportunity with that story to change how the United States views health epidemics in developing countries, and also for a deep exploration into how the epidemic has been handled. The story has already become background noise for most Americans and the US media, and there’s more to be done to explain why this epidemic matters around the world. I’m very interested in exploring how it has set back the fight against malaria, for example, as well as the real mortality rate of Ebola when confronted with modern medical systems.
“It’s great to be away from China at MIT this year to recalibrate and think about how we frame important issues related to China and the rest of world.”
Does the practice of science journalism differ in China from the US or is it similar? Tell us a little about the similarities and distinctions, if any.
All forms of journalism in China are very different than in the US because the Chinese domestic press is largely censored and controlled, and there are constraints on sources speaking to international media. Sources are wary, since they can often be harassed or worse for speaking with journalists. Most foreign correspondents in China will vehemently deny self-censoring their own reporting, but the truth is that living and working in such an intense atmosphere of repression has an impact on everyone. I think the international press has done a great job under ongoing constraints like the denial of journalist visas and other forms of harassment. In my own work, I’ve been followed, harassed, and detained multiple times, and had a visa for one employer denied. It’s a tough place to report.
With that said, it’s great to be away from China at MIT this year to recalibrate and think about how we frame important issues related to China and the rest of world. China takes the international press very seriously and that’s why the government has been so tough in trying to control reporters and media organizations.
Very often, it’s more difficult to get information and good insight into real issues while reporting in China than it is elsewhere in the world. At times that can be frustrating, but it can make the work even more rewarding as well.
How important is a compelling human narrative when reporting on a complicated scientific issue or a new piece of research? Do you feel narratives like this help or impede public understanding of complicated scientific issues and new research?
If we want the audience to become involved in the story, there's no better way to draw them in than the human narrative. This doesn't mean dumbing things down, of course. It means taking complicated issues and topics and making them relatable and relevant. Even as a reader, view or a listener, I’m much more likely to be drawn into a science-related story if it includes all the drama, conflict and resolution of any other great story.
Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Daniel Pritchard