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What is 'post-pandemic'?

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

We frequently discuss the pandemic as if it were a thing of the past. Indeed, the most traumatic and disruptive part of the pandemic is over for most people. But health professionals will say that though the health emergency has been declared over, we are still experiencing a global pandemic.

There are so many ways to look at the pandemic: There's the actual spread of the virus. And then there's the pandemic economy, the social distancing, the lockdowns, the masks and, most importantly, the hospitalizations and deaths.

As our lexicon has evolved, it's not surprising that different terms mean different things to different people.

Today we respond to a listener who wants to know more about the phrases and words NPR uses to discuss the current state of the pandemic. Because we love to nerd out about word choices, we asked an editor on the Science Desk some questions.

We also spotlight an investigative podcast series from New Hampshire Public Radio that examines claims of sexual harassment and assault in the addiction treatment industry.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

Pandemic phrases

Kent Hall wrote on June 24: Why do NPR hosts and correspondents refer to our current time period as "post pandemic," and the lockdown period as "during the pandemic"? Similarly, I've heard one of your health reporters say she had masks "leftover from COVID." This is factually incorrect. None of the major health agencies have declared an end to the pandemic. Wouldn't it be better to be more accurate with these terms? After all, it may give people the impression they have nothing to worry about.

From health stories to business stories, our team found a few instances of NPR journalism using language that referred to the pandemic as an issue of the past.

For example, an April Morning Edition story about a new trend of hospital at-home programs had "post-pandemic" in its headline: "Post-pandemic, even hospital care goes remote." The phrase "during the pandemic" appeared in both the digital and audio versions of the piece, as correspondent Yuki Noguchi said, "During the pandemic, regulators also relaxed rules requiring staffing by nurses around the clock."

The term "post-pandemic" also is used in the headline of a June business story by correspondent David Gura about banks trying to bring employees back to the office. Gura wrote in the digital story that "the end of the pandemic has been an opportunity to reconsider the role of the workplace."

To explore the language NPR journalists use around this current phase of the pandemic, we contacted Scott Hensley, domestic health editor for NPR's Science Desk. We asked Hensley how he and the Science Desk define "during the pandemic" and "post-pandemic," and what those words are meant to convey to the NPR audience.

"We were contrasting the period characterized by an intensive public health response when cases, hospitalizations and deaths were elevated with the period with a scaled-back response after those measures all fell," he said in an email. "While COVID-19 remains a technical pandemic, it is no longer a public health emergency, as defined by the World Health Organization and the U.S. government."

Hensley said the Science Desk continues to cover COVID as a significant cause of illness and mortality. "Acute cases and long COVID still pose substantial health concerns. Many people with underlying health issues, such as compromised immune systems, remain at particular risk. Older people are also at higher risk," he said. "However, vaccines, treatments and immunity gained through previous infections have helped lower the toll of COVID. For most people in the U.S., the risk from COVID has receded substantially in everyday life and is reflected in our coverage."

Still, Hensley noted that more clarity when describing the stage we're in now would be helpful: "We could be more consistent and precise in how we characterize COVID," he said. "The disease remains a pandemic, affecting people around the globe. The public health response has been downgraded from emergency status to reflect greater population immunity, improvements in care and lower rates of hospitalization and death. But even post-emergency, COVID remains a serious infectious disease."

The WHO and U.S. government's decisions to end the COVID public health emergency earlier this year affected the Science Desk's coverage, Hensley said, "mainly in the volume of stories." "Public health mandates, restrictions and data reporting related to COVID have been scaled back," he said.

As Hensley said, we are post-emergency, but not post-pandemic. And there is a difference between the pandemic as a health story and the pandemic's impact on the economy. When applicable, journalists should accurately specify which phase of the pandemic they're referring to in their reporting to better serve readers and listeners. Examples might be when lockdowns began in 2020, when the health emergency lifted, when supply chain problems eased, or when cases spiked in a particular city.

Journalists' words can influence how people perceive the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have a responsibility to describe the current period with precision, so as not to mislead their audiences. — Amaris Castillo

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

The 13th Step

Last year, a New Hampshire Public Radio investigationuncovered multiple sexual misconduct allegations against Eric Spofford, the founder of New Hampshire's largest addiction treatment network. Spofford denied these allegations, and sued NHPR for defamation. After her story was aired, NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian experienced vandalism attacks, as did her parents and her editor. Last month, NHPR launched a podcast called The 13th Step that explores the addiction treatment industry with Chooljian as host. The podcast is a meticulous study into the culture of sexual misconduct in American recovery communities, a phenomenon known as "the 13th step." — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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