Rod McCullom on contagious communication

Rod McCullom, KSJ 2015-16


Rod McCullom has spent much of his journalistic career writing about charged topics like HIV. He has written extensively about the intersection between science, poverty, and race, such as how laws that criminalize people for failure to disclose their HIV-positive status disproportionately penalize gay black men.

McCullom and Adam Hume, a research scientist at Boston University who studies Ebola and Marburg viruses, spoke about their experiences in public communication on infectious diseases at an event in the INFECTioUS series at the MIT Museum on October 5th.

McCullom was a 2015-16 Knight Science Journalism Fellow, and he described being invited back to MIT to talk about his work as “somewhat magical, really,” adding that during his fellowship year he spent many evenings attending events like this one. McCullom’s work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Atlantic, Scientific American, and The Nation.

McCullom described the work he does as reporting on marginalized communities, infectious disease, and health disparities. That combination of subjects doesn’t get a lot of attention, McCullom said. “It’s not astrophysics.”

McCullom and Hume agreed that where infectious disease is concerned, it’s no easy task convincing people to let go of their biases and false beliefs. In his presentation, Hume described a trip to Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak to educate local people about prevention and treatment.

When Hume told his family and friends he was headed to an outbreak zone, they all asked: Couldn’t he let someone else do it? In Sierra Leone, not only were family members of Ebola patients shunned, so were health workers, Hume said. No one wanted to go near them. The health workers eventually printed shirts that read: “I am helping to fight Ebola, don’t push me away.”

Hume showed photos of himself in a hazmat suit, explaining the steps that go into avoiding contamination. Even now, he said, it’s hard to get people to shake his hand once they learn what he researches. “It made dating tough,” he said.

During the Q&A part of the event, McCullom and Hume discussed how the media can fuel false beliefs about infectious diseases even as they try to educate the public about the facts. McCullom asked Hume how he had felt about early reporting on the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “I was upset,” Hume said. He recalled being frustrated by journalists’ “fear-mongering” and spreading misinformation.

McCullom stressed the importance of “being curious, and asking other people, asking the smarter people in the room, ‘What do you think is more important?’” He said that journalists might get caught up in trying to make themselves seem like science experts, but that doing so can be misleading—especially when they get the science wrong. “Always ask a scientist,” he said.

At the same time, scientists are always going to be disappointed by some lack of precision or a missing detail, McCullom said. Knowing what to leave out of a report to make it accessible to the general public is just as important as knowing what details are crucial and must be kept in.

When writing for the public, “using simple language works,” McCullom said. He and Hume were surprised to discover that they used the same strategy to decide when a communication was ready: the mom test. “My mom is my sounding board,” McCullom said; Hume always asks himself, “How would I explain this to my mom?”