Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
Many journalists I admire are astonishingly patient. Ellen Barry’s New York Times story, “The Jungle Prince of Delhi,” took years to live, and more to report. Leah Sottile’s reported podcast, “Bundyville,” produced by Longreads in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting, was a series rooted in methodical investigation. Linda Villarosa’s reporting for the Times on the role that doulas might play in helping Black women through pregnancy followed mothers-to-be for months. John Carreyrou’s masterful exposé of Theranos in The Wall Street Journal, later reprised in the book “Bad Blood,” took years to assemble.
It’s easy to see why the best reporters would be quick thinkers, rigorous questioners, and nimble writers; these are skills honed with training and experience. But patience isn’t typically mentioned in the same breath as these more workaday attributes, nor is it particularly emphasized in practical advice given to emerging reporters, which tends, with good reason, to focus on building technical skills and portfolios. As reporting objectives go, accuracy is paramount, with speed hurtling right behind it. What’s more, in a typical newsroom, the chance to exercise patience is often a luxury afforded only to the most experienced journalists working on the highest-stakes stories. Their projects usually operate beyond the pressure of day-to-day deadlines, with sweeping scopes that demand longer timetables.
As a Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow this year, I had an opportunity to hone my own patience, a virtue that doesn’t exactly come naturally to me. I knew that my project — a thorny investigation into for-profit stem-cell clinics and their ties to extremist movements — called for thorough and careful reporting, and that it would take time to find publishers for the pieces I planned to write.
But what I didn’t anticipate were the ways in which the pandemic altered the very subject of my work. The direct-to-consumer stem-cell businesses I was covering, which once marketed themselves in predictable ways, began to latch onto anti-government sentiments that Covid-19 brought to the fore: Can the government insist you wear a mask? That you get a vaccine? And as the pandemic worsened, I noticed, stem-cell practitioners increasingly encouraged patients to ask: Should the government be allowed to tell you what you can and cannot do with your own cells? The leaders of these growing health-freedom movements launched digital summits and made the rounds on talk radio. The shift in strategy meant the story was still unfolding — and that I’d need to continue reporting. I’d have to wait.
As reporting objectives go, accuracy is paramount, with speed hurtling right behind it.
Meanwhile, bureaucratic processes that were essential to the story ground to a halt during the pandemic. A key civil court case was delayed. Government health officials were slow to respond to my interview requests; understandably, they had other priorities.
I watched and waited. I taught a course on nonfiction writing. I worked on other projects.
During these months, my fellowship cohort provided a critical support group. We checked in with each other over Zoom on bleak winter afternoons. Some of them seemed to be advancing steadily with their projects. Others, like me, had no choice but to summon some patience. We commiserated. We hyped each other up. We remembered how fortunate we were to be relatively safe and healthy — and to have the resources, structure, and collegiality the fellowship afforded.
Then, spring. Things seemed to click back into motion. The lawsuit that had paused was progressing again. Health officials were now available to speak to me. I wrote new material as the action continued to unfold. Edits came more quickly.
And then, just this month, the first fruits of my work were published in Wired Magazine: a feature story exploring the insidious links between stem-cell therapy businesses and far-right movements that see government health regulations as infringements on individual freedoms. It’s a story that waiting made riper.
Lindsay Gellman is an independent investigative journalist based in New York. Her work focuses on the intersection of health and business, and has appeared in publications including Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.