ABC News' Top Medical Reporter on Covering Coronavirus: "I've Never Seen Anything Like This"

Jennifer Ashton - ABC News Publicity- H 2020
Courtesy of ABC News

"It has really been challenging on every level," chief medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton told THR.

For the last three weeks, ABC News chief medical correspondent Jennifer Ashton says she's been on the air "around the clock" covering the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has now infected more than 1,000 people in the United States.

But, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter this week, she paused to assess just how challenging the outbreak has been to cover.

"You've never seen a medical story evolve so rapidly and so dramatically, literally hour to hour, day to day," she said. "The pace of how this story is evolving is like nothing I've ever seen. … It has really been challenging on every level."

She said that journalists covering the story, across mediums like broadcast news, have been forced into the "uncomfortable" — but necessary — position of admitting to viewers that they don't know exactly what is happening and how long it will last.

"The only people who like to do that less than doctors are journalists," she said. "I think it's intellectually and professionally appropriate to say when you don't know something."

Speaking broadly about media coverage of the outbreak, Ashton said that journalists shouldn't simply provide viewers with statistics like confirmed cases and mortality rates without contextual information.

"The numbers are elusive, they're ill-defined, they change literally by the hour," she said. "And I think that this is a perfect example of a story that really needs a macro view rather than a micro view."

Ashton is a medical doctor and sees patients twice a week, which she said gives her an advantage over "TV doctors." "If you're just a TV doctor, you're not really in practice, let's say, with calming someone who's anxious or giving an answer to a question that may not have an answer," she said.

With the virus spreading around the globe, television networks like ABC News have been forced to call in all their journalistic resources, using linear, digital and social channels to convey information.

"This is one of the stories that I remember most that really shows the power of a network like ABC because of the breadth and depth that we have," Ashton said. "I've never seen in my 13-year career an interest and demand for insight, analysis and commentary like there has been on this story."

She continued: "What's also gratifying is that I've also never heard from as many viewers about how reassuring and appropriate our reporting has been on this. The feedback that we've been getting as a network and myself personally has been really gratifying. It seems to be really helping people understand the situation without taking it to hyperbole, which is not easy to do in our society."